The Make-Believe Ballroom – Full Novel (2004)

THE MAKE BELIEVE BALLROOM: A Novel (Full text, from 2004)


For those who think, “It has to be better somewhere.
And for those who know it’s not.
Book 1

The book can produce an addiction as fierce as heroin or nicotine, forcing us to spend much of our lives, like junkies, in book shops and libraries, those literary counterparts to the opium den.

—Philip Adams

If all else fails, tell the truth. If that fails, write a book about it.

—Roger Solomon Manwell

Of all character traits, emotional and psychological, insanity and a sense of humor are the most human. Few penguins have been observed telling knock-knock jokes. Beavers are likewise humorless creatures, if, of course, you exclude the sinister comedy that is their lives. They’re furry little construction workers with shitty jobs, short life-spans, and their eloquent log homes have little retail value. Raccoons are thieves and lions are lazy, but only a human being can be a maniac and comedian and get paid for it. Crazy lions don’t get shit. No one laughs at Llamas. Except crazy people.
Is that what makes a man a man? The knock-knock jokes and whoopee cushions? Is it those eat the can of donkey spleen and salamander testicles for the grand prize television shows? Is this what it is to be man, grandest creature of all, Homo Sapiens? What would Freud say about that kind of shit? What sets man above the other creatures? Pi, Pies in the face, super soakers, aids, super computers, philosophy and nuclear war? The mind has always been my obsession—the reasons, the why’s, you know, the philosopher’s alibis.
Beavers share a common bond with men. We’re both silly creatures. We’re silly enough to be duped into monogamy, but every now and then our mates catch us being men. That always leads to trouble, for beavers and for men. We’re knotted like a thick blonde braid with these working-class quadrupeds. Makes you want to sing, doesn’t it? Ah, singing. Singing is a beautiful thing, in humans and in nature, but there are few animals capable of playing the piano.
Is that what it is that separates us? Our grand symphonies and operas? Indeed, more to me has been said of God through Ave Maria than the Bible or Koran or Bhagavad-Gita. Surely there is mania, subtle, poetic and graceful mania, in these masterworks of human thought. There is a bit of mania in music, like the Vedas, spiritual chants, Voodoo ritual dances and primitive drums. Insanity can be beautiful. Insanity can be noble.
Insanity is apparent in other areas of nature, of course. There are faint traces of it in other animals, but to a lukewarm degree; it’s rare to find a zebra in a book depository building with a bolt action rifle looking to start some shit. They’ve got those hooves, hard to grip a rifle with a stumped up foot, you see. But a human has the ability and the inclination to do this. They have the beliefs to justify it. It is just as easy for them to justify their beliefs as it is for me to justify mine.
Nothing interests me more than these peculiar bipeds. It’s easy to condemn them as irrational creatures with a penchant for doing incredibly stupid and crazy shit. Exhibit A: Mardi Gras. It sure is fun though. I’ve been arrested at Mardi Gras a couple of times. You might’ve seen me on the episode of cops dedicated to Mardi Gras. The show staggered the imagination. Outlaw bandits ran around with flopping tits, covered with fancy, multi-colored beads. They rolled around on the ground covered in piss, vomit, and alcohol. God bless America.
Swimming pools are hard evidence in support of my argument. Anyone that spends more than ten minutes in a man made puddle should be sent to the corner to think about what they’ve done. They should be removed from their home for their third offence. No soup for them, either. They will learn the error of their ways or die. Murdering someone because they like to go for a swim is a bit extreme, but they have to learn somehow.
What am I trying to say? You could ask. Simple: human beings are wonderfully insane creatures. There’s something fascinating about how the circuitry of a burnt out mind works. I imagine dark rows of bluish diodes shifting about with occasional sparks like lightning bugs in tangled trees. This was my obsession.
This is what brought me to Herman.
I’ve invented a simple test to determine whether or not you’re insane. If you fail this test, you’ll probably enjoy my little story. If you pass it, I don’t like you. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
It’s three o’clock in the morning. You’re hungry, bored, and having trouble getting to sleep. You put on your robe, tie it, and head downstairs to look for some food. You open the fridge. You explore behind milk cartons, jugs of tea, tin-foiled covered bowls from yesterday. You find nothing. You give up and return to your room. This is normal. Food is necessary.
Thirty minutes later, you repeat the process, thinking, “Maybe I missed something.” This is not a reasonable excuse. This is not rational. Congratulations! You are insane.
Ever contemplated the origin of the cosmos while taking a shit? If so, once again, you are insane. Interesting person, perhaps. Insane, definitely.
Put this book down and look around. (You have to pick it back up or you’ll hurt my feelings. Could you live with that on your conscience?) If there are any signs of swimming trunks you must commit yourself immediately for the safety of your family. Do it for the kids man! The kids! Would you want them to turn out like me? For heaven’s sake man, something must be done. It’s a shame that there are people that share my outlook. What do I want to do with my life? Waste it. Waste it and enjoy wasting it. I’m ashamed of being human, and proud of it.
My grandmother is a kind woman. She had five children and, when my grandfather had open heart surgery, she had to support them all by working twelve hours a day and six days a week in a cotton mill just to buy them shoes and keep them fed. She had no concern for herself and wore the same rotted pair of Reebok’s for at least fifteen years before we got her a new pair for Mother’s day.
She was just a wee lass when the Titanic was swallowed whole by the hungry gullet of the sea. In the summer. we walked around in her fenced in yard to look for June bugs. We’d tie their legs to a stick once we found them just to watch ‘em fly around in circles. She collected porcelain angels and did her crossword puzzles every night. Other than that, she played a mean harmonica. I’ve never met a more superstitious person. In twenty seven years, she never missed a day of church. In keeping with the law of the Lord, she never cursed when angry; she spelled the words out. Sometimes my uncle was an ‘a double s.’
She thought a cross could keep her toilet from overflowing. Some quiet nights she stood in front of that American standard porcelain God shouting, with her crucifix held in front of her, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!” I couldn’t make this shit up. Superstition is a pure distillation of insanity.
Sorrow, regret, loneliness, heartache – all wonderful traits for human beings – but apparent in other animals. Regret is hard to see in the lower animals (you know, the animals that are too dumb to wear clothes and work at McDonalds) but it’s there. My grandmother’s cat, Entae, a runt of a black tabby with a gimp leg, had to be Italian. She exhibited a lot of common human characteristics. Other than cat food, she’d only eat ham and lasagna, spaghetti, rigatoni. Baloney was out of the question.
After eating about eight bowls of lasagna one night, I believe she regretted it almost as much as my mother, who had to truck down the stairs at three in the morning with a plastic baggy bought with the sole intention of scooping up cat shit and other less friendly bodily excretions.
There is more insanity at work here than you might notice at first glance. Let’s examine: there is a company, made of men that launched, funded, and marketed a product to be used primarily in dealing with cat vomit. The logic behind this is staggering. Staggering.
How could this come about? Let’s muse. Want to muse with me? Come on, I’ll be nice. One day there are three young business school grads on a train. They see three cats form a small circle and vomit ritualistically all over their patent leather loafers. A day which will forever live in infamy.
“My god!” says Grad I to the other two with a slack jawed gape. Tiny tendrils of drool dangle from his mouth.
“What did he do this time?” Grad II questions.
Grad III just sits there with a blank gaze. He stares at the birds for a while. “Durrr,” he adds emphatically.
“We could make a product designed for dealing with this situation!”
“Out of what?” asks Grad II. Grad III is still staring across the horizon with a doleful look on his face.
“Little trash bags!” he said.
“Brilliant! We could paint little paws and bones on them. It’d make millions. People love buying stupid shit for their pets.”
“Ahh,” the third one nods in agreement. Together, Grad I and Grad II make Grad III the boss. He sits at his desk and just agrees. His employees consider him ideal for upper management.

I have an uncle that believes dogs have the power to talk, but instead use psychic powers to make people think they’re not talking.
After a cursory glance at daytime television, it becomes obvious that people have little concern for the fact that they only have about fifty years to live. But they’re content to use the one life they’re allotted with spray on hair treatment and boots that turn into roller-skates.
This is a massive universe, staggering in size. Some say it’s terrible, some say it’s wonderful, and some just drink beer, play the lottery, and pay little attention to social matters.
Some believe the universe is wonderful because it brought forth life. There are others that believe it’s terrible for this very reason. Any man that spends a significant amount of time in an IRS building will have little humility before the wonder that is life.
Omar Khayyam had it right in The Rubáiyát:
A moment’s halt – a momentary taste
Of being from the well amid the waste
And Lo! the phantom caravan has reached
The nothing it set out from, oh make haste!
This perspective of Miss Milky way seems to be lost on men who spend their days concerned with raking in as much money as possible so they can have nice cars with digital surround sound and a little voice-operated flip-down DVD screen that can’t be watched while driving. They don’t have peacock tails or feathers, but they do have voice-operated flip-down DVD screens and they work just as well and serve the exact same purpose.
I’ve spent most of my life watching and judging others. No, I’m not Christian: I’m just interested in human behavior.
There is nothing as horribly entertaining as insanity at its most terrible and fabulous: dancing. Dancing is a seizure with style. There’s nothing more insane. Dancing has to be the craziest of all human inventions. More terrible than the atom bomb, more insidious than the first pointed stick someone thought would be nice to fling at a rabbit. More ghastly, perverse, and demented than the sequel to Caddyshack. It chills me to the bone just thinking about it. To the bone.
If our culture is ever unearthed, billions of years in the future, after every single car with digital surround and flip down DVD screens has been buried under thousands of pounds of earthen ash, I pray that a vastly superior alien culture never comes to Earth and stumbles upon Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons. What would the vastly intelligent alien races with pointed ears, glitter, and rhinestone collars think of us then? They’d be laughing from Sirius to the other side of Andromeda. This haunts my dreams.
If we’re ever to move forward as a species, I think that it’s vital, important, pertinent, imperative, necessary and essential to seek out and eliminate every single VHS recording of Michael Jackson’s Thriller just so we don’t embarrass ourselves in front of the other galactic civilizations. What would they think of us then? All our toupees, plastic forks, glide on deodorant, and little cell phones with catchy ring tones can’t beat away the fact that we’re dying and doing a poor job at it. Dying is a lot easier and less complicated than we make it out to be and a lot more entertaining than most people give it credit for.
I always wanted to think that humans had a higher purpose than the other animals. Because we could use microwaves and laser printers, we must’ve been ordained with some important task in life. I don’t know, something more special and fulfilling than playing checkers or slinging burgers out of plastic windows. Could that be our purpose? Life is temporary; plastic lives forever.
After years of research, I found humans to be the least intelligent of all creatures on the Earth.
Every day after work, paid slave labor really, I walked down the walkway with grime and dirt all over me, covered in dust with blood on my elbows. My cat would be asleep in the grass. Just lounging in the sun without anxiety pills, nerve medication, cigarettes, opium or Dairy Queen. She had no care or worry about paying her light bill or the cat across the street with the great personality and caring eyes. Nothing. The sun, the grass, and the occasional grasshopper is enough for her. She is not cursed with consciousness.
My neighbor’s cat would be stalking mine. A dog would wait for the right moment to surprise attack on the cat too occupied with my cat to know what was about to happen. Of course, there are drawbacks to being forever carefree. Cars. Cats are often hit by cars. Humans are often hit by cars. Cats still come out on top. In lieu of the fact that they just get hit by them and don’t have to pay for them beforehand, they win.
If you didn’t laugh at that, you’re communist.

So, ladies and gentleman, what higher purpose do we have? Working at a fast food joint doesn’t seem to be a divine business venture. Functional, yes. Divine? Far from it. And, for some reason, I don’t believe that popping pimples has much to do with the Glory of God or the penultimate destiny of the universe. Call me crazy, but I don’t see how this really matters in the grand scheme of things.
This talk of insanity reminds me of something a friend used to chant when presented with something he didn’t understand: “Crazy? I went crazy once. They put me in a box. The worms ate through the box. I hate worms. Worms make me crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once. They put me in a box. The worms ate through the box. Worms make me crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once…”

Why lapse into this rambling inanity now, you could ask. Halfway through the story, the necessity of this small squib of a prologue will become apparent. This story is about an old man whom many in our small redneck mill village believed to be crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once…
A cousin of mine once wrote to the senator of our great state of South Carolina. She had a wild theory about why everything, as she put it, was kickin’ up dog shit:
“Dear Mr. Man in Charge,
Ninety-nine percent of children that get involved with drugs, gangs, violence, and small after school republican groups, have ketchup in their system. Coincidence? I think not.”
There has yet to be a reply. Sad sad sad.
She lived alone in a small box-like apartment. The same kind of apartment Herman lived in. Apartments in some parts of the south are ground level, like homes, and have front porches, back porches, and a clothesline divided up between the houses. They’re made of brick and insulated but dank. These are the kind of apartments that always leak when it rains.
Herman Prince was a guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle, piano, saxophone, and music theory teacher. He spent a lot of time in front of his house shouting at pigeons, begging them to have some of his bread. I once saw him using tape and cardboard to fix a broken window on his car. The first time I saw him, he was using a lucky rabbit’s foot to scrape ice off his windshield in the winter. He drove around town in a noisy station wagon with rust speckled along the doorway. The muffler always dragged the ground behind him.
Ordinary, maybe not. But what is ordinary? Ordinary is just a kind word for boring.
My dad introduced me to Herman on a long and lazy day in May. My friends had graduated and I was stupid enough to ruin my future on a whim by telling one of my teachers to give a donkey a blowjob for a bucket of baloney. What a waste, but no matter. My life was going nowhere and I was glad. I couldn’t picture myself in a dim grey cubicle pecking around on a keyboard with a tie and a suit. I couldn’t picture myself doing that. I couldn’t picture myself paying thirty grand to go to college just so some pompous blowhard could read to me. And I’d just quit my job. No school, no job, no money, no friends – everything I’d always wanted.
There are certain confessions I’d like to make before I continue. If you’d rather skip to the story than listen to me moan and groan about everything, I welcome you to find the first chapter and start there. Chances are, however, if you do that – something bad will happen to you.
I was born and raised in the American south. For the record, I’m writing this in an outhouse with crayons on the back of a box of cereal. Though we are often stereotyped as insignificant hillbillies, we pride ourselves on being insignificant hillbillies. We have little technology and only a dollop of intelligence amongst us. Yes, it’s true. We’re all crazy ass religious nuts with more shotguns than teeth. We all vote republican and have sex with our relatives. I take offense to this. I have never voted and I could care less about religion.
Yes. Everything you’ve heard is true. Even the things that cancel the other things out, or the things that go on to say that there are a number of reasonably intelligent and sophisticated people running around in the south with clean clothes on.
Yes. It’s all true. We all sit around on the back of pickup trucks with a piece of straw in our mouth, petting a coon dog and plucking a banjo while maw and paw ride horses to the general mills store to get feed fer the chickens. That’s our culture, ain’t it? You’ve seen the movies, read the books, and heard about the absurd backwood odysseys that often crop up in the south where everyone has an outhouse. Want a true shock? Like the kind you have in those dense mystery novels when the harder than stone heroine with the tortured past finds out her brother did it? I’m writing this on a computer in a room with electricity! And by the grace of God, we have indoor plumbing. I don’t even own a banjo.
Our town sits between two big cities. These big cities have a combined population of eight to ten thousand. They have all the fancy eating places like McDonalds and Burger King. We have curb markets and family owned grills that line our littered streets. Main Street consists of three churches, a tennis court, a basketball court, a gym, a family owned drug store, City Hall, a doctor’s office and post office. We’re also proud of our traffic light. Yes, one traffic light.
This town is beyond boring. It’s like an English speaking wasteland where forgotten shadow figures lurch through the barren streets at night, asking for money or cigarettes, just wanting to keep their lives going. We go through robotic motions every day, and that’s our life. We just live and die and disappear. No news reports or memorial services, just cheap caskets and plastic flowers. We live like hungry robots wrapped in skin, burning under sweet Sol, going through the motions ‘til we die or get murdered for twenty dollars.
These gravel roads are dark, packed with rotting houses, heavy with fog and garbage. People around here get on drugs because there’s nothing else to do. Few of us could afford college even if we wanted to go. That’s for folk with fancy high school diplomas and people that go on to do big things with their lives. Going to college has nothing to do with learning. No one goes to learn; they go to get a piece of paper that says they’ve learned. One of our graduates, God how we’re proud, became assistant manager at a cotton mill on the outskirts of town. He even climbed his way to the top of the retail world when he was featured on a billboard. “You’ll be grinnin’ when you try our linen,” the sign read. Pure class.
Everybody knows everybody in this town. Most spend their time walking up and down Main along the littered sidewalks, or filing in and out of churches. There are thirty five churches within ten square miles and one library. This is not a healthy ratio.
As such, Herman was infamous in our little town. Of course everyone said he was crazy. “He never stops talking,” they said. “Good guitar player, though,” they added. “I heard he makes really nice birdhouses,” some gushed. It was true. He made and sold birdhouses of high quality, hand painted, lacquered and varnished. On Saturday’s he had yard sales for his birdhouses. For a couple of dollars extra, he’d even sew a name on a small cloth and hang it from the perch for the name of your bird. Still, rumors buzzed like bees.
I’m guilty of the same thing. I’ve made up rumors myself. “They say that man has the largest…” Why did I do this? For attention? To have someone know that I was alive? I really don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not anything, actually. Just one of those lonely shadow figures that creep along the fog-lined streets at night, watching other strange faces light up in the dark with burning cigarettes, speckled along the streets like fireflies. Just looking for my home, for something to keep me going. For something to make the struggle worth it. And that is what I’m doing now.
Herman was the grandmaster of crazy, my father said. Apparently, continuous talking is enough to make somebody crazy. Spending twelve hours a day in triple digit heat for two hundred dollars a week to pay for TV’s and name brand shoes, however, is completely logical. It’s normal. Of course it is. You’ve got to pay for designer slacks and stylish shoes, paper napkins and nice collections of jewel studded carrying cases with certificates of authenticity at low low prices, priced to own! Get yours now!
There were maybe five or six two star cafes in our town, since Taco Bell and the other high class eateries were too classy for us. The one hotel that graced Main Street was set ablaze by the owner in order to collect the insurance money. He’ll learn, in prison, that in order to collect the insurance money you have to have a policy. If you’re going to be dumb enough to break the law, you should be smart enough to know it. Wal-Mart wouldn’t even be caught dead in our tiny town. Not even the Wal-Marts that dropped out of high school would come about.
So, how did I meet the grandmaster of crazy?

I grew up with my grandparents and didn’t meet my father until I was a grown man. I met him and found out he was a talented guitarist, artist, and pothead. He told me his father played, his father’s father played, and his father’s grandfather played. So I had to play. I had to be better than they were. And of course, I knew Herman was a guitar teacher and I knew how crazy everyone thought he was. There are people around here who think I’m crazy. Especially because of one rumor that suggests I danced around on my front porch in a wedding dress while a strange Hispanic man laid under me and filmed the entire sordid affair with a cigar in his mouth and yellow spandex draped around his exotic shoulders. This isn’t entirely untrue. (The dress wouldn’t fit and the young man stole the camera. You just can’t find good help these days. And plus, I started the rumor.)
So, my dad arranged a meeting for us.
It was sometime after noon when the alarm clock rang. My dad was going to take me to Herman’s house sometime around two. I would drive myself, but I had an unfortunate accident involving my car, a liter of vodka, and a swing set. I’m not proud.
No one was home when I opened my eyes. I threw off the covers and stood at the window for a minute or so yawning. It was too early for me, and I didn’t really feel like showering. Thankfully the heat had dropped under ninety degrees.
Thank God for small favors and favors for small Gods.
The sun drifted wistfully over the mill behind our house and the deck in our backyard. Even Sol had overslept.
“It’s ‘alf past five already,” I imagined Sol saying to the stars when the intergalactic alarm went off. “Oh bugger, better put the kettle on.” And so Sol rolled out of bed. Even stars have to pay the bills or God turns off the light. He has the power to do this. We know it. Sol is a clever girl and knows it too.
Whether or not our sun is male or female, as of yet, is pure speculation. However I refuse to believe that a male sun could keep up such a long commitment. Unfaithful buggers.
It had been a late evening for Sol the day before I met Herman. The moon didn’t show up until sometime after ten. Sol complained to Alpha Centarui A and his twin sister, even Wolf 359 popped in for a bit. His solar system didn’t support life. He always bragged about being able to sleep late. But he always brought Sirius, the biggest prick known to man. “I’ve got a G2V spectral type,” he boasted. “I am the brightest star in the galaxy, you know. It’s cool, you want to have sex with me. I get that a lot.”
“What about Canopus?” Sol asked. “Canopus has certainly put on weight. Vega, now she’s a big girl.”
“Canopus? Vega?” Sirius laughed. “You can’t be serious.”
Sol and the Local Group resisted a ridiculous word pun and went back to their game of poker. Giant solar flares threw mammoth cards.
“No!” he shouted. “You’re not serious, but I am! How terrible that must be for you!”
“Makes you want to go Nova doesn’t it? Sometimes I don’t want to get up in the morning.”
“Well, take your pills,” the neighborhood chimed before they lugged back to their sleeping worlds.
“See you on Thursday,” said Sol. “We’ll play pool.”
I imagined that Sol and the Local Group had an understanding. The first and most important rule: never invite Sirius to parties. The second and not quite as important rule: never let the life that relies on us know that we know it relies on us. “If life knew we were aware and conscious, it’d be devastating,” Sol said. “They would always want us to perform odd jobs and we’d never get any sleep. Not that we do anyway…”
“Some days,” thought Sol as she spun above her blue-green water world, “you just want to pack it in.”
Today was a day like that for Sol and for me. Many months had passed since I was voluntarily fired from my job, and getting up before lunchtime was a chore. My dad tried to get me another job, some sort of volunteer work, but I don’t do volunteer work unless I’m being paid for it.
The money was good enough with the old job to provide all of life’s little necessities: cigarettes, Tylenol, books, hot wings, my nerve medication (some sort of anxiety ailment that causes my chest to hurt all day everyday), a pint of vodka or six. The work didn’t bother me. I just woke up one morning and felt like Sol, sans the billions of dependant life forms. I just had one: a seventeen year old brother. He said I could quit if I wanted to as long as I could still pay his cell phone bill. As long as I paid that, he said, we had no qualms.
If I hadn’t quit my job, I never would have met this aging miser. I would’ve met him sooner, and after we agreed upon a time and location, he stood me up. As an eighteen year old with a large nose and no cash flow, I know what it’s like to be stood up.
The only peculiarity about this: we agreed to meet at his house. The next time we spoke, he told me he forgot how to get there. Then he asked who I was and why I called. He asked me if saw Hank to tell him he was waiting for his call. I told him I’d keep a look out. He forgot how to get to his own house. This struck me as clever, intentional or not, so I went home to play a bit of chess with my brother for a while.
The next day, after another scheduled meeting, he stood me up again. Only this time I figured I could leave a trail of bread crumbs and he’d be able to follow them over the meadow, through the woods, and all of that gibberish. My father didn’t like driving back and forth to the same ground-level apartment complex every day. Gas costs an arm and a leg and grave robbing is illegal. So my father was pissed.
He wasn’t too fond of Herman even though he urged me to take lessons from him and “admitted” his “savant like musical talents.” I didn’t know if he disliked him out of wounded pride, because my father was a one timer failed guitarist. He admitted his “savant like” talents. My father thought a savant was a mix between a genius and a retard. Those are his words.
He admitted that he was a very kind and caring person, but he hated him. Why? How can you hate a kind and loving person? It’s easy, actually. People do it all the time, everywhere. It’s easier than knowing them
My only real worry was that he would eat all of the bread I took such pains to place. I was chased around by a few cats, some pigeons. A strange man in an electric wheelchair even followed me around shaking his crooked finger at me for being wasteful.
“People are starving!” he yelled. He slammed his high-end scooter into over drive and bounded towards me at the blistering speed of five mph.
“So are pigeons!” I responded. “And they don’t have the evolutionary advantage of skipping round to the Fast Stop to pick up a loaf, now do they?”
The man shook his head and trudged on. I knew him, otherwise I wouldn’t spend so much time trying to pretend to be clever with him. He went to the same mental health department as I did some odd months back, and he always complained about the coffee. They never had coffee at our anger management meetings. This, he said, was the main problem. My anger management class really pissed me off. I was glad they were out of coffee. Those people kicked around in bunny slippers with their brains wired together by Thorazine and lithium. Coffee was the last thing they needed.
My old companion on the motorized wheelchair used to work as a forest ranger before his brain collapsed. The police reprimanded him and sentenced him to two months in our wonderful upstate institution.
As the story goes, one day the man saw something that made his brain try to gag itself. In the woods, men are sometimes forced to resort to horrible things in order to survive: eat their friends, wipe with poison ivy, eat at Arby’s. The survival instinct is there, a strange knack we inherited from our tree climbing ancestors. The old man came to the conclusion that deer somehow planned to murder him while he slept. He barricaded his doors, set traps. He realized then that he never wanted to work with deer again.
When the arresting officer found him downtown, butt naked with a pair of antlers in his hand and covered in deer blood, the man jeered, chortled, slapped his hands and sprung to his feet. “They don’t taste good!” he shouted. “They never come to help with the plumbing!” This quip secured him a couple of months in our famous hole in Columbia. Now he’s in an electric wheelchair. Just spends most of his time riding around town, picking up pecans, shouting at strange men that leave curious trails of bread along the roads.

When Herman didn’t show up, my dad took me home and parked his truck. It idled in the driveway, shot off tendrils of smoke from the rusted radiator. My dad jumped from the torn leather seats, littered with empty Tylenol bottles, roaches, and shotgun shells.
“One more time,” he said, “and we’re done with him. Just because he wants to visit the old folk’s home, he thinks we have to wait on him. He can forget that shit.”
My dad dragged my heavyset amplifier out of the back of his truck, set it on the splintered blacktop that ran beneath his feet, and lugged it across the sidewalk to my front porch. He stood there with me for a moment. He took his hat off and rubbed his balding head just to give me the fear of hereditary disease. It always worked.
“Here’s a pack of cigarettes,” he said. “Don’t tell your grandmother I’m buying ‘em for you. She’d tan my hide if she found out I was givin’ you cigarettes. Now practice son, practice and you might be better than me someday.”
“A lofty goal,” I said. “Come by tomorrow. I’ll leave a message on his answering machine about his no-shows. Clever though they may be.”
My dad nodded, flicked his cigarette in the tall grass that lined the porch. It bounced beside my cat, startling her, and she darted across the yard. She hid under one of the run down automobiles my uncle worked on in the yard.
I dragged my amplifier into the living room and, already tired, I dropped it beside the door and kicked off my shoes. My grandmother sat under the lamplight in the family room, inking tiny blurbs into one of her massive crossword puzzle books.
“Where you been?” she asked. She sat her crossword on the stand beside her aged recliner. “I made vegetable stew and you ain’t even wait to finish it. Why you always runnin’ off with that old fool anyway?”
“Because he’s my father,” I replied. My brother walked through the living room with a friend. My grandmother removed her glasses and sat them by her crossword puzzle.
“What’s up, faggot?” my brother asked. He sure did love and respect his big brother. I felt like I was more like a father because I tried to teach him things when he was stolen from his mother.
“Ha,” he said, giving me the finger. “What’s up?”
“My blood pressure,” I shouted. I flung a candle holder at him. It slapped the wall and spilled onto the floor as he darted aside.
“You missed, lefty,” he said. “We still gonna check out your telescope when it gets dark?”
“If it gets dark, sure.” I looked around. “Things are not what they seem.” I vocalized the Twilight Zone theme.
He disappeared out of the room with a slight chuckle. I heard him flip the switch on his video game system as it plugged into him again. My grandmother turned her attention to me.
“I know he’s your father and you want to spend time with him, but he’s a bad man. He ain’t never have anything to do with you and now he’s back actin’ everything is fine. We took you in and raised you when he ain’t want nothin’ to do with you.”
“At least he doesn’t beat me every time I say ‘damn’ or ‘hell’ or even ‘pissed.’ He might not be much of a father, but he’s a good friend and that’s more than Stanley will ever be to me. He doesn’t beat me when he catches me with a cigarette, either.”
“Because he doesn’t care about you,” mother said.
“He had a funny way of showing it. Most people say I love you with flowers or candy, not with drop cords and leather straps across the back.”
“He bought you everything you wanted.”
“And he never gave me the only thing money couldn’t pay for: just a little time. He could’ve at least thrown a baseball with me or watched a movie. Anything would’ve made me happy. Instead he puts me in the back room and fills it full of toys, enough of them to hide me completely so he wouldn’t have to spend any time with me.”
“After he had that open heart surgery, he couldn’t get around like he use’ta. He was always hurtin’ and too sick to get out of bed. You know that, Thomas. He had emphysema.”
These talks happen all the time, but my grandmother is a good old lady. She spends most of her time in the recliner by the lamp in the living room with a word puzzle, like her mother, a glass of tea, her cat Entae, and some country and western music going. She played a damn mean harmonica just like her mother.
At night she watched Wheel of Fortune without fail, then dusted off the collection of porcelain dolls her mother left for her when she died When my mother dies, I’m going to steal all of her dolls and leave them in wicker baskets all over the state. I think that’d be a good gesture about her nature. She was content, but had to have her tea, her crossword puzzles, and her cat. It seemed to me that she needed them as much as I needed cigarettes.
She didn’t much care for my real father, as my grandfather didn’t before he found the bucket and kicked it.
My real mother became pregnant with me at the tender age of fifteen. My father spent most of his time playing guitar and smoking pot, so my grandparents thought him unfit to be a parent. They even went so far as to draw up a restraining order against him.
Since my mother was on heavy doses of cocaine while pregnant with me, my grandparents tried to adopt me when my mother gave birth. They couldn’t then, but after child services came to the house and found me in a baby pool in the living room and my mother in the bedroom asleep, they stuck me in an orphanage as the slow machine of bureaucracy churned. Interestingly enough, the only side effects of being a cocaine baby is never having a heart rate under 160bpm. Fun stuff. I can never relax. It seems like my heart pumps not blood, but cocaine.
After a couple of years in an orphanage in those tiny beds and stark white burgundy floors (all the walls were white and all the floors were a shiny sort of burgundy), my grandparents adopted me. My grandmother is my mother and my great grandmother is my grandmother, the lady that tied strings around the legs of June bugs in the summer.
My surrogate father, after being released from the orphanage, beat me like a rag before he died. If he hadn’t died, I would have killed him myself. He never let me stay out with friends or smoke. And every time I brought home a grade lower than a one hundred, I’d be tied to the same radiator and spanked. He tied me and my brother down because he had emphysema and it was hard for him to chase us. Sometimes, just to fuck with him, we’d run in his room at night and throw water on him just to run around until he tired out.
He didn’t let me stay out later than ten on school nights. This is enough to warrant murder in and of itself. He hated my friends and kept me from them out of spite. He never let me go anywhere, he never let me do anything, and he spent all of his money just to keep me happy in my tiny bedroom full of toys I didn’t want bought by people that didn’t want me to begin with.
“I don’t want to argue with you again, Thomas,” my grandmother/mother said. “There’re some hot wings on the stove if ya hungry. Some mashed potatoes on the table, too. But get out of the way, my stories is on.”
Within minutes, she was wired to the television again, nodding with glassy eyes. Entae dozed on her lap.
After supper, my brother and I played a game of chess, listened to some music, (Chopin, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis) and then went to look through my telescope. I sat on the deck for a while with my brother as he looked through my telescope.
I had just stubbed out a cigarette when my grandmother bumbled down the back steps by the deck. “Telephone,” she shouted. She piddled toward me in a floral muumuu. For people that have never been to the south or been around a really fat man, you may not know what a muumuu is. A muumuu is a towel with delusions of grandeur.
“Thanks,” I said. She handed me the phone and started back for the house. “Bring it in when yer done with it,” she said. “If you leave it off the hook, it’ll go dead.”
“Hello?” I said into the phone.
“I was on my way,” Herman’s rapid voice explained. “I got sidetracked when I saw bread all over the road. That bread looked nasty, so I assumed that old man had been tryin’ ta feed the pigeons that dirty stuff. But the pigeons must’a hurt that poor old man’s feelings or something and ran him off. We can’t let the pigeons get sick, buddy. We can’t let that happen.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Pigeons are quality birds. That much is true.”
“Pigeons is good birds. After I got all them crumbs up, I went to the grocery store and got some of that San Francisco bread – the fancy stuff. Cost me damn near five dollars, but it was worth it. Them pigeons sure liked it. And no self respecting pigeon could’a ate that other stuff.”
I’d spent days wandering around in the summer heat carrying a guitar case like a bum, but I could at least take solace in the fact that somewhere a group of lucky pigeons enjoyed an evening of fine dining.
“You should come over tomorrow, bud,” he said. “I ain’t got nothin’ planned. Nothin’ special anyway. Just sittin’ round, pickin’ for a while.”
“What happened?” I asked. There’s one problem when it comes to meeting someone that isn’t there: you can’t pretend to forget your wallet when the check comes.
“I would’a called ya yesterday bud, but I had to go to church and God’s only open on Sunday.”
“And the day before?”
“Scooby Doo marathon.”

I despaired, hoping all the while that someone somewhere on Earth at sometime was doing something more fun but enjoying it less than me.
It’s all fine and good to be lazy, though. For one thing, I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig any more ditches for some head honcho construction tycoon. They fired me for not showing up and – this might be important – also for being linked to a small case of arson involving a tractor, a bundle of plywood I was to carry, and a bunch of random janitorial utilities that had cropped up around outside the mill where we were digging the tunnel. The case is still pending because, as my lawyer suggested, I plead insanity. I had certified papers to prove it too. Captain Smug Asshole down at the probate office will have to pine over the lost opportunity to ruin the life of a youth just looking for a good time.
It was an overcast Tuesday afternoon with damp grass from the day before. My dad pulled up in front of our house and honked the horn of his ragged pickup truck. I put away my drawing, and strode toward the truck.
A few little girls with young girl braids jumped rope in the yard in front of Herman’s – a mirror home to his, precise and exact. We pulled into the section B driveway of the Leisure View apartment.
The Leisure View apartments resemble cupboards with small front porches and littered, tiny front yards and low ceilings. The best thing about living in such a neighborhood is everyone is too embarrassed about where they live to come and borrow sugar.
Herman’s apartment looked just like all the others. They looked like small brick Lego blocks connected together. People from up north say they look like houses because of the fact that they’re shaped like them and only have one floor.
A slide with overgrown grass beside it lay in waste behind a rosebush and the water of a small baby pool with a yellow alligator’s face on it bobbed and swayed with the trees as they sang their song of approaching rain. A rusted mailbox drooped beside a birdhouse with a wooden redbird atop it – on which the number 11A stood out in stark black print with white trim.
My dad turned off the truck and it sputtered to a stop. “I’m tellin’ you,” he said, “he’s about five or six shades past crazy.” I looked at his apartment for a moment. For a moment I thought of all the stories we’d been told about him. People treated him like a homeless man even though he never asked for money, and people would hurry to avoid him in a store.
“Crazy?” I asked. “You forget who you’re talking to. I spent a month in the rubber hole.” I lifted my shirt. “See?”
“There’s a difference,” my father said. “You’re that other kind of crazy. The smart-ass-spends-too-much-time-by-himself type crazy. It’s not a destructive, pathological type of mania. Your mother has it, but you just take shit too far. All Herman does is flap his lips.”
“Lips cause nothing but trouble anyway,” I said.
“What about eating?”
He turned his head and chuckled, looked across the battered sidewalk.
“You shouldn’t try to cut things out of you anyway, boy,” my father said. “You’re not a qualified surgeon. We don’t want you to get busted for practicing without a license. We’ve seen it before, you know.”
“Wasn’t your brother arrested for something like that?” I tried not too laugh. He knew what I meant.
“Yes, Thomas. My brother, your uncle, was arrested for practicing proctology without a license.”
We looked at each other for a moment. After that moment, we decided it was that funny, but agreed not to talk about it anymore anyway.
An old man stood in sandals and a tank top in one of the other yards, bent over the hood of a broken down Corvette with grease up to his elbows. With a walker, at a steady pace, an old woman combed the streets for cans to recycle. Everything seemed normal, save for a strange group of Janitors that stood smoking cigarettes at the end of the road. They seemed unprofessional to the extreme; their threadbare suits looked like costumes. Same uniform, hat, and yellow glove dangled from their back pockets. Bunch of bums really. My kind of people.
“He’s a nice man,” my father said. He lit a joint and passed it to me. “Try not to have a panic attack this time.”
“No promises.”
“He’s really lost his shit, but he’s as nice as they come. Especially since that wreck. He’ll talk your fuckin’ ear off, man. Don’t pay him any attention. He never makes sense. Just nod and force a smile and take one of your pills.”
“That shit dulls my brain,” I said. “And I’m southern enough as it is.”
“You know, he’s full of almost half enough shit as you.”
“It’s that bad, huh?”
My father laughed, saying, “he’s a good teacher. Ah, somebody should just give him a joint and calm his ass down.” Those little squiggly lines of heat beaded off the sidewalk. “Man it’s hot. I’m going to pick up some more xanax’s for you. You wanna have a few beers later on?”
I passed the joint back to him, inhaling, going, “Ah…”
“You gone drink with me or not, boy?” he asked. He took the joint, put it to his lips. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, saying, “Well?”
“Nah, conflicts with my medicine. Makes my chest hurt.”
“Well, I could use a few. Maybe that would settle me. I’m about to run man, so, just don’t get too personal with him, you know? He’ll never stop calling, coming by whenever he wants. It doesn’t matter to him. Take everything he says with a grain of salt; watch out or you just might step in bullshit. He makes shit up for no reason, man. Just don’t ever feel sorry for him.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said. I got out of my dad’s camouflage truck, amp in one hand, guitar in the other, and headed toward the door.
“See you later,” my father said. “Make sure you give him the ten dollars or he’ll hound you forever. And,” he added, “if it’s at all possible, try to get your head out of your ass long enough to get some sunshine. It’s been too long since you been out of that house anyway.”
“No promises.”
My dad pulled out and turned around in the turnaround at the end of the road. Steep, wooded banks rode up on both sides of the road. I walked along the long brick sidewalk, up to the door, dropped my amp and guitar.
As of this moment, the element of surprise and suspense must be lacking in this little squib of a story. To up the suspense, maybe I could gun down the kids at the playground, take their bikes, hop in the car across the street, kick the old man in the throat, and laugh derisively as I barrel down the back roads with little regard for life or limb as a fiery explosion licks at the charred fender of my smoking muscle car. What will I do? Will I open the door? Will anybody give a shit either way?
Stay tuned.
Chapter 1
A Life in Lowercase

I stood at the ragged door for a moment, took a deep breath, looked around. Nobody could see me. I knocked. The mesh on the door had long ago been picked apart by scavenger birds. The loose wires shifted when the wind picked up.
A hummingbird sat on the handlebars of an old bicycle near his porch. It seemed as though the bird expected me. A look of disappointment crossed the hummingbird’s face. He fluttered, flew away. Not even hummingbirds care about what I’m doing with my life. Smug bastards.
From what I saw, though, the hummingbird wasn’t indigenous to the area. Most hummingbirds around here are black-chinned or Rufous hummingbirds. This looked more like a Xantus, even though they’re not indigenous to this area.
The door opened right away and a short bald man with a white, orange juice stained tank top appeared in the doorway. He had on tight blue jeans and grey, pin-striped suspenders. He had bloodshot eyes, glazed over and mist-like, and blinked rapidly. His lips twitched. He wrung his hands together, “Come in!” he shouted. “Come in!”
I walked in and put my guitar beside his rusted radiator. His radiator seemed to be humming some sort of song as I passed.
His living room had a damp, cigar like smell to it, and was full of cardboard boxes. There was a single candle burning on the windowsill. Some of the piles of boxes went all the way to the ceiling. Guitars hung on the adjoining wall, five of them. There was very little space between the boxes. An old, burnt out television hissed with static in the center of the room. A small bit of green and yellow linoleum stretched into the other room, spotted with dirt and grime. The lights were off and the rooms were dim. I could see a table in the back room, lit up by a small bit of light sneaking through the faded curtains. They looked like they were covered in smoke.
“Sit, sit,” he said, fetching a chair from the kitchen. He sat down with me and wrung his hands together, leaning over. He had a scruffy beard and he talked in a strange, rushed voice. His eyes were glaring and dark black.
“Thanks,” I said, sitting down.
“Did you see anyone outside?” he asked. He ran to the window blinds and, peered out. “I heard knocking just a second ago. You sure nobody out there?”
“No,” I said.
“No one? Nobody on a golf cart or anything? Are you sure you ain’t see somebody? Parked across the road with one of them clipboards and a notebook with them surgeon masks on?”
He looked around at his apartment, sighed, and walked over to where I sat. He sat down in front of me.
“Nice to have you here!” he shouted. “I know your dad, you know. Did I talk to you on the phone? Of course I did. Your name is Phillip, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “but my nickname is Thomas. Call me by that.”
“Ah yes,” he said, looking relieved. “I knew your dad, Phillip.”
He rocked back and forth. He scratched his arms, bit his bottom lip, blinked his glass-like eyes.
“I hope you won’t hold that against me,” I said.
He jumped from his seat and straightened out a poster on the wall behind me. I turned and glanced at a giant, autographed poster of a middle-aged man holding a guitar, wearing a cowboy hat studded with opal seashells.
He smiled and laughed a bit, scratching at the back of his head – looking into his bedroom. Beside his chair there were dozens of photographs, photo albums, and an overturned coffee tin covered in cigarette butts and snuff.
“Oh no,” he said, “your daddy’s a nice man. A fine man! I was in the National Guard with him in Fort Jackson. That’s what happened to my finger,” he stuck out his shaking hand to show me a mangled pinky.
“What happened?”
“Oh, we were in Georgia,” he continued. “That was a long time ago. Before I got that Parkinson’s and memory thing. Can’t remember much of anything as it is. It messes up my head, buddy. It ain’t my fault that somebody wrecked, is it? I didn’t mean for it to happen. It ain’t my fault, is it?”
“No,” I said, “accidents happen.”
“Bad people make accidents. Bad people cause bad things.”
“What happened on the way back from Georgia?”
“Well, my memory ain’t good, but I guess I could tell you. On our way back to the South Carolina armory, towing some tractor equipment in a camper, one of the axels blew on the truck. Threw us right off the road into the bushes.
“The trailer started to slip when I grabbed it, but that’s when Mike stumbled out of the back of the truck. He was hit by the back tire on the tractor trailer an’ died right there in the road. I jumped into the road after him and somehow my pinky got cut off. I didn’t have Parkinson’s then. My fingers shake, you see?” he held up his hand.
I nodded.
“I’m just glad they got the pinky reattached,” he went on. “His parents hate me. Why do they hate, bud? I didn’t mean to do anything to hurt Mike. I wouldn’t have hurt him. I wouldn’t have hurt anybody, but they hate me anyway. You know them; they live behind the mill hill. You live behind that old abandoned mill don’t you? His parents live near you, I think. With that big pecan tree in their front yard. You can always see his mammy out there pickin’ ‘em up. They blame his death on me for no reason. I tried to save him, honest. I swear I ain’t lyin’. I just wanted to help. Now they call me bad names. They call me retard. They call me killer.”
He held up his trembling hand and smiled. “It’s not too bad. I’m on some medicine for it. That’s why I’m so jittery. Did you ever meet him? Mike? I’ve got a picture of him, though, if you want to see it.”
“Sure,” I said. He jumped from his seat, maneuvered behind it, and began thumbing through the disheveled papers sticking out of a cardboard box. All of them brimmed over.
He sat a crumpled box on his lap. He picked through it for a minute. He strained trying to lift one of the heavier boxes, gritting his teeth as he tried to hoist it back on top of the pile. His eyes were closed tight. Little beads of sweat gathered around his tired eyes.
“Don’t worry, bud,” he kept saying. “I’ve got it. Just take it easy. Want something to drink? Something to eat? I got some sandwiches in the fridge in there. Some orange juice maybe?”
“Nah,” I said. “I’m good.”
“You sure? If you want something to eat, you don’t have to leave to get it. I could feed you. We could go out or something, maybe? I’ll pay for it.”
“I’m fine,” I repeated.
Mountains of toothbrushes and shaving cream towered to the ceiling. I sat my Jazz III guitar pick on the coffee tin beside the couch, stood to help him. His eyes widened. A look of genuine surprised crossed his face.
“No,” he shouted, “I’ve got it. Just give me a minute. I appreciate it though, really do. People don’t usually want me around… much less try to help me with something.”
“Here it is!” He rushed back his seat, handed it to me. The young man in the picture had a bloody lip and short black hair. Probably around eighteen years old.
“I met him when I was in the National Guard with your dad. On the way back to South Carolina one day, the truck ran off the road and hit a bank. Threw him from the car and I think the tire hit him. Tried to help, you know I wouldn’t just let somebody die like that, but he was already dead. I kept yelling at him, telling him I was sorry. Your daddy kept telling me it wasn’t my fault… What did I do wrong? He got thrown from the truck. There was nothing I could do but say I’m sorry. Sometimes that’s all anybody can do. Something like that leaves a stain on you, buddy, and sorry won’t always wash it away.”
“Why would you apologize to him? It wasn’t your fault.”
He shuffled in his chair, biting down on his bottom lip. He looked at me with bloodshot eyes. It looked as though something was straining to look out from something like prison bars.
“Did you see anybody outside when you came in?” he asked. He ran over to the window blinds and knelt down, peering out into the hot afternoon.
“No,” I said, “What were you watching?” I gestured to the static riddled television.
“A video of me pickin’ with some friends over in Union. I’ll have to take you over there one night with me if you don’t mind bein’ seen with me. It’s just a bunch of boys gettin’ together and playing. Fiddlers, steel guitar players, even piano players gather in that old warehouse. Sometimes they bring their wives with them and make some muscadine wine.”
“How long have you been playing?” I asked. He grabbed an old flamenco guitar and began tuning it. He went through a few scales and chord progressions. His hands didn’t shake when he played.
“I started playing when I was real little,” he said. “Your grandfather gave me my first guitar! We were good friends; I’m surprised I’ve never met you before now.”
“I was adopted.”
“By your grandparents, right? Your grandma worked with a friend of mine at a mill in Laurens. They were weavers, I think.”
“Yeah,” I said. I really didn’t feel like talking about it, and he understood.
“After I got discharged from the National Guard, I went to stay with a friend in Tennessee,” he said. “I joined a band then and we started pickin’ at some of the small clubs. We made it all the way to Nashville! To Nashville, can you believe that! The people around here ain’t treat me like dirt when I was on TV pickin’ with famous musicians. All them laughin’ people ain’t laugh at me then, no sir! Nashville, buddy. All them bright lights and fancy clothes.
“That’s where the heart of bluegrass is. I’ve played dobro for Chet Atkins on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. I met all the boys from the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash, too. They even thought I was pretty good. In those days, maybe I was. Look,” he said. He hoisted a cardboard box onto his lap with a long, thin piece of tape across it, “Look at this.”
The picture was of Johnny Cash. Written on it in the thick scrawl of a red marker was:
To my good friend Herman, keep on pickin’
– Johnny Cash
“That’s awesome,” I said, handing it back to him. “So you played with Johnny Cash?”
“Everyday I’d wake up and leave the hotel, throw my guitar case over my back, and head out to the bus. My friends would be there waiting, because I always showed up late, and they’d be having their coffee and smoking their cigarettes and then we’d be off. It was a different stage every night almost, but that was a long time ago. Long time ago…too long, buddy. Too long.
“I don’t remember much about nothin’ since I came back here. That’s when I got put on disability. My hands started shakin’ and they put me on some pills that make me worry about everything and nothin’.”
“What did they put you on disability for?” I asked and lit a cigarette, “Oops, do you mind if I smoke in here?”
“Not at all buddy,” he said, “here, put your butts in here.” He handed me a coffee tin full of snuff and teabags.
Holding the coffee tin, it seemed as though there were sounds from under it. I tapped my foot, shook my head, counted back and forth to ten, repeating to myself that it was all in my head. Just as I had been instructed to do. When I was locked away in the rubber hole, they made me count doubles when I felt that twinge in my chest, when I felt nervous.
Something seemed strange about the coffee tin. No matter how many butts or bits of snuff went in it, it never overflowed. I didn’t bother turning it over. I just put my ashes on the bottom of it.
“They put me on disability for Alzheimer’s, I think that’s the word, because things didn’t make much sense to me anymore. You know what I mean? I’d wake up and expect to be somewhere else, like on the bus again – and I’d be in yonder, sleepin’ on the floor, scared of the rats. I ain’t got nothin’ against ‘em as a species, but they scare me. That ceiling leaks and it wakes me up whenever it thunders and rains, and when it wakes me up … I always wake up expecting to see my friends again. But they ain’t never here, never here. I set the table for ‘em every night just in case they stop by. Put out a couple of plates with some sandwiches on them, couple glasses of orange juice. I guess they just don’t like my sandwiches.”
“Do they usually come over?”
“Yeah, all the time. They really think I’m good. Always loved to hear me play. Well they don’t come over all the time. Haven’t in a while. Three months and seventeen days since I’ve had guests.”
He kept glaring at the cigarette and tried to hide his coughing. I stubbed it out.
“It’s been about ten years now, buddy. All them years is like a big ‘ol gap, I don’t remember anything from most of them. Every here and there somebody will come up and tell me they saw me pickin’ somewhere and I tell ‘em ‘thank you,’ and ‘I ‘preciate it’ but I don’t remember what they talkin’ about.”
When I looked at him, it didn’t seem like he was really there, mentally, but he was very animated. He gestured and slapped his knees, leaned back and laughed from time to time. He always had a smile. Sometimes I could tell it was real, and sometimes he faked it, looking worried over something. I didn’t know what to say to him. So, like an idiot, I just nodded and said “yeah,” and “ah,” occasionally.
“So, today I figure we just get to know each other a bit, you know… just talk and set some things up and I’ll figure out what you want me to teach you, what you want to play. You play any other instruments?”
“I played piano a bit when I was younger, and saxophone in school. But I really want to learn to play guitar. I know a little bit, as I’ve played for a couple of months now.”
“Your daddy was a real good guitar picker. Your real daddy, not your grandpa. I don’t really know him, but he’s a good man. I’ve seen him at the truck stop a couple of times. He always ordered coffee and chicken strips. It’s been a while since I saw him, though.”
“Yeah,” I said, “he died four years ago. That’s probably why you haven’t seen him. As far as I know, they don’t allow dead people at the truck stop. Credit companies still expect him to pay old debts, though. They’ve even threatened to sue him a couple of times. I’d hate to imagine them putting him on the witness stand.”
“Oh I’m sorry, terribly, he was a good man. I think he was, anyway … I’m sure he was. But your dad, your real dad, his pappy was a good picker. We used
to play as children. One day I was out there with your grandpa and your daddy and he was sitting on one side of the room, watchin’ me pick, and he kept lookin’ at me and lookin’ me. So I pick him a song, ‘Wheels’ by Chet Atkins, I played with Chet at the Opry a few times but that was years ago, years ago, so I finished pickin’ and he’s just staring at me. So I get up, and I walk over to him, and handed him my guitar! Ha-ha! He just looked at me. I said, ‘play me a song, then.’ You should’a seen the way he looked at me!”
I laughed a bit, trying to keep my awkward smile. Beside me on the floor, beside his radiator, was a stack of papers. They were scattered on the floor. They were all covered with thick type-face. “What’s that?” I asked, looking down at the papers.
“’Digitalis’? What’s that?” I asked. A janitor passed by the window pushing a mop and bucket. He pressed his face against the window for a moment. I blinked and he was gone. Herman sprung to his feet and ran over to the blinds. He peered out for a moment, then walked back over to me. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
“Anybody there?” I asked.
“No, did you see anybody when you came in?”
I shook my head. He frowned.
“I’m thinking about writing a book,” he said after a moment, looking towards the window, “Those are just some notes. I really need to bring my typewriter back into my room to work on it.” His foot was tapping the hardwood floor.
“Really?” I asked, “I’ve always wanted to write a book. Never had the time, really. Plus, people don’t really read much anymore. Why waste time reading when you can go buy designer shoes? I just could never find the time. Well, I had the time … just never much motivation for it.”
“Why, do you work?”
“I worked with my dad for a while as an electrician over in Winnsboro at a construction company. I carried logs in the winter, jackhammers in the summer, and blisters year-round. With that kind of job, I was always in a hurry to get absolutely nothing done. I didn’t really do anything, but I was good at it.
“It didn’t really matter, anyway; none of that shit mattered in the long run, or to my life. It was just for making money, which really didn’t matter either. So that was my job – waste the only life I’d ever have in a hole wearing a hard hat in triple digit heat just to keep the main prick satisfied. It was stupid. Completely pointless and degrading. But I had to pay my brother’s cell phone bill somehow.”
“What do you want to do with your life?”
“Waste it.”
Herman laughed a nervous little laugh and slapped his knee. “I tell you buddy, the harder you work … the less money you make. That’s truth there for you.”
“Yeah, God made the heavens and the earth at minimum wage with only one day off. And every day I’d be out in my hole, sweating like a slave, thinking about some smug lawyer in an air-conditioned office with a pair of Doc Martin’s on, just waiting to cheat on his wife, get drunk, and beat his kids. This gave me hope. He’d have some big tittied blonde bouncing around on him and I’d be drilling, carrying pipe. Lots of bullshit. It’s good to know that you’re living up to your full potential though, you know – making a real difference in life by digging ten by ten ditches with surgical precision.”
Herman laughed again and put his hand on my knee. “You know, buddy,” he said, “you a lot like your daddy. He talk and talk and talk with that sailor language. But it don’t bother me, just words. But I’m gonna tell you somethin’ and I hope you don’t get mad at me … ‘cause you a good boy and I want to pick with you, your dad was a good picker, but I got a girl comin’ over in about thirty minutes I think. I’m teachin’ her violin and music theory. She’s a good girl, moved here from the Virgin Islands. She’s really good on the violin, buddy. She’s real good. But there’s one thing about her … she’s blind. Please don’t pick on her, Philip. She’s really a kind girl, good as they come, and people shout at her ‘cause of her little stick. They call her names, but she’s so sweet to me. Calls me ‘sir’! Imagine that… She gave me a snow globe for my birthday, I think. It’s in there by the phone.”
“Is she completely blind?” I asked.
“Nah, she ain’t completely blind. She can see, but it’s like shadows. You ever made shapes on the walls when you was little? Of ducks and birds?”
“Shadow puppets?”
“Yeah, like ducks and frogs, birds. For some reason, she can see into that snow globe she gave me. I think she’s just pullin’ my leg though. Maybe just lyin’ to make me feel better… She a precious girl, real precious. Sometimes I have to help her get around the room and the house, you know. She actually doesn’t need my help, but I don’t want to see her fall. She’s such a pretty young thing. But, you want to play don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I want to play.”
“Well, come over here tomorrow around lunch and I’ll make us some sandwiches. You will come right? I’ll make you something to eat. You like tomato sandwiches? Some bacon, maybe? We can eat and I’ll let you listen to this record of me playin’ with your grandpa. It’s really good. You’ll love it, and you’ll learn something about your family.”
“Sounds terrible,” I said. His smile disappeared. He looked at me with his dark, questioning eyes.
“Terrible?” he asked with sad sad eyes. “Why terrible? You don’t like tomatoes?”
“Nah man, I was kidding. Tomatoes are fine. I was just talking about learning about my family.”
“Why don’t you like your family?”
“Spend the night in an orphanage. Then you won’t have to ask that question.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Your grandpa was a good man though. He played bass and I was playing guitar. I have a neighbor named Murphy who plays bass. You’ll enjoy it if you like bluegrass. What type of music you want to play again? Blues is what your daddy told me, he also told me you like a bit of classical music?”
“I like a lot of classical music,” I replied. “Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Schubert. Mozart, of course. I’d like to be able to do the same kind of, you know, phrasings on the guitar. Chord sequences, composition. I’ve written some compositions for piano, but I want to write some classical bits for the guitar too. But basically, I want to play blues.”
His hand was quivering. With one hand he steadied the other at the wrist. “I’ll be back in a second, bud. Please don’t leave. Promise me you won’t leave.”
“I’m not going to leave.”
He ran into the other room. Drawers opened, closed, cabinets opened, closed. Herman came back in the room. The faucet ran for a moment.
“Had to take my medicine,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
That was something I understood.
“I teach you some blues scales and keys first,” he continued, “then I’ll let you watch a video I have of some boys I knew in Nashville playing the blues. They was real good boys, ain’t talked to them in a while, though. I talked to one the other day; Hank Garland was his name I think. His power went out so the phone cut off, he’ll probably call back soon. He’s a good one, his old lady – she’s a weird ‘un.”
“Alright then,” I said. I gathered my belongings, saying, “I’ll see you then.”
“Alright buddy, you take care. Tell ya daddy to come see me. Tell him I want him to watch this video of me and his papa pickin’ over at his old house in Union. You are going to come back right? I won’t talk about your family if it offends you or anything. I promise. Come over tomorrow around noon then, Ok?”
“I’ll do that,” I said and offered him my hand. He shook it. I turned to walk away but he held onto it.
“Your name is Thomas, right?”
“Yes,” I said, “My name is Thomas.”
“My name is Herman,” he said and smiled, “Come back tomorrow, Thomas.”
“Nice to meet you.”

I sat on his front porch, lit a cigarette, and waited on my dad. The man across the road had retired his auto repairs and was lounging in a chair, drinking a beer. A white mini-van stopped in the middle of the road in front of Herman’s house. A young girl, probably fifteen or sixteen years old, got out with a violin case. She yelled something to the driver. She took a long redwood cane from the backseat. She stared at it for a moment, squinting and trying to focus, then she threw it into the backseat, heading off without it. She approached the porch slow like.
“Is he home?” she asked. She stared at me with unflinching brown eyes.
“Yes,” I replied. “He’s waiting for you.”
“Thank you,” she said, walking past me. She knocked on the door and it opened immediately.
“You came back!” he yelled. The screen door closed behind her. “I really ain’t think you liked me…”
I nodded at him and he waved, smiling back at me as my dad pulled up. I put my amp in the back and tied it down, throwing my guitar case into the seat beside me. He turned the music down when I got in.
“He told you all about Nashville, didn’t he?” my dad asked. He looked stoned, as usual, and the car smelled like beer, as usual. He still worked that go-nowhere construction job. Had to keep his mind off it somehow.
“Yeah,” I said, “He’s really nice. Keeps calling me Phillip, but other than that… things are fine.”
“He has Alzheimer’s,” my dad said.
“I gathered that. Did you know he played at the Opry in Tennessee?”
“That’s all he ever talks about. Most of it isn’t even true. He’s been on disability for ten years now. His mind is gone. You know all those boxes that are stacked up around his apartment?”
“They’re full of pictures, flyers, albums, records, all kinds of shit – all signed by celebrities. He probably signed them himself. Self flattering piece of shit. All he does when he’s by himself is look through those boxes of pictures. He’s stuck in the past.”
“Well, it seems like he was a lot happier then,” I said. “It seems like he hates being on disability, you know, being so dependent on his medicine.”
“You see his hands shaking?” My dad asked, lighting a cigarette. “They don’t shake like that when he plays. You know what that says? That he just does it for sympathy. He’s like an idiot-savant, like that guy on Rain Man. You know who I’m talking about? He’s worthless at everything except music. He’s like a redneck Mozart when he’s on a piano or a guitar, but he can’t do anything else. He can’t work because he has Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, so he teaches a bit to help pay some of the bills. He’s living in the wrong era.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking out the window as the small, cramped apartments went by, “but if Leonardo Da Vinci lived in America he’d work at Wal-Mart and never get laid.”
My dad laughed and said, “Yeah, he’d just push around art supplies and dream.”
“And Joan of Arc?” I asked. “She’d work at Hooters. If God talked to her these days, they’d put her on Zoloft and lock her up.”
“Ha-ha and nobody would pick Confucius in basketball. Imagine him standing there in a little robe, going, ‘Confucius say…’ while somebody dunks all over his ass. Can you imagine if Mozart was alive, trying to make music these days?”
“That’s a laugh,” I said, flicking my cigarette out the window. “He’d never make the billboard charts. Brittney Spears would outsell him constantly. Rondo Alla Turca would be ousted on the charts by Snoop Dogg’s latest whimsical romp about the inherent difficulty in employing prostitutes.”
My dad laughed. He lit a roach and passed it to me.
“Crazy ain’t he?”
“Well,” I started, “lots people are crazy. There are strange, strange people in this world. I know a guy that sits around in his bedroom wearing a cape and superman goggles, watching Sports Center and listening to Reggae. A guy told me last night that he saw a janitor in his mirror that disappeared when he asked him what his name was. If you try to introduce yourself to a mirror, something is wrong. There are people that spend their entire lives looking for dinosaur bones in those barren, uninhabitable Montana wastelands.”
“You know,” my dad went on, “I read something the other day about some man investigating a conspiracy involving the Russian government and satellite radios and their link with the spontaneous disappearance of his dirty laundry. I see what you’re saying. People are crazy. But, there are different types of crazy. Some types are self destructive, like Herman. He tortures himself and refuses to accept that after all of his glories, he’s stuck in a shithole with a family that doesn’t want to talk to him. It’s kind of sad, really. His family won’t have anything to do with him.”
“Why?” I asked. “Because he talks so much? That’s nothing. He’s not hurting anybody. He’s not out robbing banks or killing people or listening to Kenny Rogers. He’s just talking. It’s not like he’s killing babies or reading Dean Koontz. At least he’s nice.”
“He’s a liar. Most of that shit never happened. He just makes it up to impress people so they’ll like him or feel sorry for him.”
“What’s wrong with that? He’s lonely. People that are that lonely, and have no one, they usually do make up stuff to make their life feel worth living. It’s not hurting anyone, so why does it matter? It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t at all. It makes him happy, so it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I guess you’re right.”
We pulled in front of my surrogate’s house. He hid the joint beside his leg, stubbing it out against the cushion of his seat.
“The worst thing of his illness, I think,” he went on, “is that his kids died not too long ago and he still sends them birthday cards. He remembers their birthdays but doesn’t remember them dying. It’s a shame too. He sends them the same birthday presents every year. What a waste of money.”
I was silent.
“What time does he want you to come over tomorrow?”
“Lunch time,” I said, pulling my guitar case out of the truck.
“He’s going to make you a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich isn’t he?” my dad laughed, walking towards my front porch.
“Yeah, he is.”
My dad laughed again. He sat my amp on the ragged carpet of our front porch.
“See you then,” he said. He made his way towards his truck.
Chapter 2
The Blind Violinist

The next day near the end of May, Herman moved his typewriter into his bedroom and started his story Digitalis. He carried around an old red Sharpie marker. He wrote everything with it: phone numbers, addresses, dates, everything. But this, this story, this would put him right back on the stage, he said. People would care again.
The blind girl was there when I showed up, guitar and amp in hand. She sat on Herman’s orange juice stained couch. There were streaks along the floor from where it had been moved the night before. It was torn, ragged, and a pale grey color. It had replaced the television.
“Good?” he was saying when I walked in. “You’re good, buddy. You’re the best violinist I ever heard. I swear I ain’t lyin.’ Did your mother play? You’re probably the best student I’ve ever had. You should learn War March of the Priests. You’d love that one. I’m sure of it. I knew a woman that played the fiddle when I played in Nashville, but you’re a lot better than her. And she was famous! Imagine what you could do. With a little help from me, we could play all those same bars I use’ta play. I’d be your manager. I’d get a fancy suit and a tie, maybe even a new cowboy hat, but I’d buy you whatever you wanted. Anything.”
Today he was dressed a bit better. His shirt was clean, but looked too small for him, and several buttons were missing. He tucked it into his black dress pants which were also too short for him. They hiked up past his ankles when he sat down. A rusted music stand stood in front of the young girl with a notebook full of sheet music translated into Braille. She ran her long, slender fingers over the page, then put the violin to her chin and ran over the scales with considerable skill.
“My mother didn’t play,” she said. “My mother works in pharmaceuticals.” Her beautiful eyes stared at him. His eyes darted back and forth to the running air conditioner and yellowed window above it. It seemed like he expected something.
“Let’s run over those scales one more time, buddy. Then we’ll have some sandwiches and call your mom. She ain’t mad at me for keeping you over for so long last night?”
“No,” said a sweet voice. “She thinks it’s good that I’ve found a friend.”
He smiled, saying, “I got a friend.”
His face looked nervous, taxed, splotchy and red. Sweat gathered on his forehead. He seemed to change expressions when she looked towards him. He knew she only saw a shadow, or a silhouette, but something about her looking at him seemed to make him unsettled.
“What’s wrong, man? Is she telling you about her day? Does she want a commitment? I hope it’s not that serious.”
He jumped up, startled, and knocked over a glass of orange juice.
“I thought you were someone else,” he said, breathing and panting. He glanced at me with bloodshot eyes.
“No such luck,” I smirked. He started towards the hallway that led to the kitchen. It was more like a cave with a stove and countertop than a kitchen.
“I have to take my medicine,” he said. It seemed like he was staring and not seeing anything, like looking through something. Sweat rolled down his face. He kept glancing at the window with unease.
The phone rang while he was in the kitchen. He rushed to it, snatched it up from the receiver, and said, “Hello?”
“Have you noticed anything strange?” a soothing, elderly voice said.
“This is Herman,” he replied. “What can I do for you? You want guitar lessons? Piano? I knew a woman that lived in Augusta that was a damn good piano player. Haven’t heard from her in years, though. She’s supposed to be calling…”
“No, sir,” said the man. “I just wanted to know if you’ve,” he paused, “seen anything strange. Anything glowing? Anything turning up missing?”
“Not that I know of, buddy,” Herman said, “but I’ll let you know. Give me your number and I’ll ring you up if something goes missing.”
“Do you plan on writing a book, sir?” The question was cold and frank.
“I don’t think so,” Herman replied, “but if I am, I’ll let you know.”
The man gave his number and Herman wrote it down.
“Ask for Wyatt,” said the man. He hung up. Herman rushed back into the room with us.
“Sorry,” he said, “I had to take my medicine. It’s supposed to calm me down a little. But I made a friend!”
“Yeah, I know man. It’s fine. I have to take medicine too,” I said. “I take sleeping medicine and an anti-depressant. And some other sort of stuff that’s supposed to calm me down or turn me into a cow or something. Everybody takes something.”
“I have to take medicine for my eyes, because they get really dry,” the young girl said. “I hate taking it. I hate having to depend on something.”
“Oh, Thomas, this is Elizabeth,” Herman said.
“Hi, Elizabeth. I’m Thomas.”
“Hello,” she said in a low, sensual voice.
“Can I get something to drink?” I asked.
“Yeah, there’s some orange juice in the fridge. You can have all you want, buddy. There are some Styrofoam cups up in the cabinet above the sink.”
“Thanks,” I said.
In his fridge there was a head of lettuce, some orange juice, bread, tomatoes, leftover bacon, and on the bottom shelf—a pillow. Roaches crawled around on his counter tops. Dishes lay in waste about his table and in his sink.
“I’m going to fix some sandwiches in a minute,” he called into the kitchen. “First I gotta talk to Elizabeth about something.”
“Alright,” I said. I walked back into the living room.
He had a ’57 Fender Telecaster on his lap, playing a country bluegrass riff. His hands had stopped shaking and all the worry and panic and stress seemed to drain out of his face. It was apparent: the man had an enormous talent. They were clear and beautiful. He played a Chopin piece, Nocturne in C# minor.
“What’s it going to be about?” Elizabeth asked.
He jumped up from his chair, sat down his guitar, and ran into the other room. We heard him digging around in his drawers for a minute. He hurried back.
“I had to take some medicine,” he said. “I was gettin’ that sick feelin’ again. Did Hank call? He’s supposed to call.”
We shook our heads. The color drained from his face. “His power went out when we were on the phone earlier,” he said. “He’s going to call back. Yes, yes. He’a call tonight or tomorrow. He wouldn’t make up somethin’ like that just so he ain’t have to talk to me.”
He sat down in front of us again. Sweat gathered around his temples.
“I have to take this medicine because my hands shake, and I don’t always remember things so good. I have that, what’s it called … old people get it, but I ain’t old. I ain’t old at all… I gotta lot of time left for me, yes sir! But what’s the name of that there disease that old folk get when they start to forget things?”
“Alzheimer’s,” Elizabeth said, looking warmly at him. I could tell she cared about him.
“Yeah, that’s it! But it’s hard to take it, you know. Without it, it’s like I’m helpless. And if I don’t take it, they’ll ship me off to the same place they sent my dad. And he just disappeared, like all my brothers and sisters and family did over the years. I don’t even know where they’re at, really.” He looked over at his ragged air conditioner, that never seemed to work, and asked, “Are you guys hot? Cold? Want me to turn it off?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No, thanks,” I said.
“Herman,” Elizabeth said in her soft, young girl voice, “you were going to tell me what your book is about?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“About your book?” she questioned.
“It’s hot in here. Is it in hot in here to you?” He went to jump from his chair again and she grabbed his arm.
“No, Herman, it’s fine. Tell me what you had to tell me.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m going to write a book. Nobody thinks I can do it though. They just think I’m a d-a-m-n retard. Sorry if I cussed in front of you. I don’t normally do that in front of women. Yes, I’m gonna write a book. It won’t be that good.”
“That’s great, Herman; it really is,” she said, taking his hand into hers. He smiled a big smile.
“What’s it going to be about?” I asked.
He replied: “It’s going to be a story that doesn’t mean what’s being said, but means something else entirely … but the story is going to be there, it’ll just have different meanings.”
“Like an allegory?” I questioned him again.
“Yes, allegory! That’s the word. I read about it not too long ago. It’s a neat idea, ain’t it? Yes, yes. It is going to be an allegory. It’s about some people looking for a place. Other than that, I’m not sure how it’s going to go.”
“What’s the name of the place?” Elizabeth asked.
“Ra’s Patio, maybe, or Ra’s Portico. That’s a word I heard not too long ago and liked. It was in a crossword I did.”
“That sounds really nice, Herman. Real nice,” Elizabeth said. “I know you can do it.” She smiled and wiped her long, silk-like black hair from her face. He smiled again, showing his long row of short, thin teeth.
“I’m going to start as soon as y’all leave tonight, I think.” He ran into the kitchen again. “I forgot about those sandwiches!” he called to us. We heard him busying himself for a minute. He came back into the room with two plates and a cup of orange juice for Elizabeth. “I hope you like bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches,” he said.
“I love them,” Elizabeth said, as I said too.
We ate and then watched an old video of his. It was of some concert—they all were—and then Elizabeth left. I remained over there for a while after that. He’d stopped Elizabeth at the door for at least thirty minutes, telling her to come over the next day and to tell her parents to come and see him.
“Did I show you the snow globe she gave me?” he asked.
“Put down your guitar for a second, bud. Come look at this.”
I followed him into the room adjoining his kitchen and the living room. On his phone stand, cluttered with picks, papers, phonebooks, and date-books, was a small, ornate snow globe. Inside it there was a young girl on a bench with her face plunged into her hands. “It looks like it’s snowing on her when you shake it up,” he said and shook it. It was really pretty and I told him so. We walked into the other room and sat down again.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think I hear that girl talking to me.”
Silence. Minutes passed.
“Hey, bud, do you want to see something even prettier?” he said at last.
“Yeah, sure.”
He led me through the kitchen, out the back door, down the back steps. Under a clothesline with blowing sheets, he knelt to the ground. “Look,” he gestured to a small garden under the clothesline. It was well attended to.
“Some tomatoes,” he said, pointing, “and some squash. I’m thinking about getting some cucumbers in here too. My mother always had a garden but she never grew cucumbers… she always wanted them though but didn’t grow ‘em because daddy was allergic to ‘em. Gave him heartburn.”
“Are these your towels?” I asked, waving them out of my way to kneel beside him. They were covered in long brown stains, dirt, and gathering pollen.
“Yeah, but I never take them in.”
“Why? They don’t look that bad.”
“Because my mother had a clothesline by the garden. When I was a boy, every morning I’d go out to the garden with her, and she’d always prune her tomatoes and squash and then take the laundry in.”
I was silent.
“What’s this?” he said, walking towards the end of the line. “I didn’t hang this out here.”
A pair of blue trousers hung on the line. Beside the trousers hung a blue, button up work shirt.
“Wyatt?” I read from the name written on the tag. “Do you know anybody named Wyatt?”
He thought for a moment. “Not that I remember,” he said. He walked over to observe them. He turned them over in his hand, feeling the fabric. “Must be my neighbor’s,” he said. “He works for the town sometimes, community service like. He must be using my line. He does that sometimes.”
I nodded, not really knowing what to say.
“What’s this writing?” he asked. “It seems to be in a foreign language or something. I can’t read as good as I used to, but this ain’t English, buddy.”
I walked over and looked at the tag in the back of the pants.
“It’s French,” I said. “Fixez la roue avant le déjeuner.”
“What does that mean?” he asked, letting go of the pair of pants.
“Fix the wheel before lunch,” I said, “or something close to that.”
“You speak French?”
“A little bit,” I laughed, “a little bit.”
“That’s nice, buddy. You any good at it?”
“Not really. I just memorized a lot of words from a dictionary. I don’t know anything about context or conjugation. I can just put together memorized words. Let’s go inside. It’s hot out here.”
“I’m going to start on my book,” he said, “right after I feed my hummingbird.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to run anyway,” I said.
“Why don’t you stay over here for a while? People been comin’ by here bothering me a lot lately, saying I need to wake up, saying I owe ‘em money. I’d appreciate it if you could stay here with me for a while…”
“I don’t know,” I muttered. “I have…”
“I’ll give you a couple of dollars. Twenty, that good enough for you buddy? I have a jazz album you can listen to while you’re here. There are sandwiches in the fridge. Don’t you like astronomy stuff? Your dad said you liked it. But, but look at this before you go.”
He ran into his living room, snatched something out of an old box, brought it over, and handed it to me.
“To Herman,” he said, reading it, “From Hank Garland and family. Hank should be calling be back pretty soon, so listen out for the phone. He said he would call.” His strange, distant eyes, seemed to plead with me.
“I’ll stay,” I said, “but you don’t have to pay me. Put on that record and go write. I’ll listen to it for a while.”
He put it on and I listened. I heard the sound of key-strokes on an old typewriter in the other room.
I sat there in his living room for a while as he hammered away on the keys. The sun went down and I’d refilled my cup of orange juice. I could tell that his only real company before I started going over was Elizabeth. Most people thought he’d just forgotten them, but when I asked he said, “They disappear, and I don’t know where they go.”
No one called, but as I was sitting in his bedroom, on his mattress – which was a cot on the floor, he kept running back and forth anxiously to the phone. Hank never called.
“Did you hear the phone ring?” he’d ask, poking his head into the bedroom.
“Nah,” I’d say, and he’d go back to his writing.
“What is fantasy?” he asked, late into the night.
“Fantasy is reality without explanation,” I replied. He went back to work.
Deep into the middle of the early morning, chattering rang out in Herman’s living room. A cold face, white like a ghost, pressed against the window where Herman’s air conditioner hung. The chattering grew louder, like chirping crickets; they clicked together, each small sound a small echo.Chapter 3
Anne’s Snow Globe

Even though they asked her to come with them, quiet Anne Marie always waited outside. She didn’t care for the noise, screaming, yelling, or any of the work.
Her name had been Anne Marie for most of her life, especially since she was sold to some medicine men before Elijah sprung her from her cage. Before that she was a dancer. She told them to never use her full name, so they didn’t.
She was alone under the streetlight, holding a snow globe. Snow drifted on her shoulders, in her silky hair. In the globe she saw the reflection of the house behind her. It was falling apart. Two huge windows glowed with light. Aaron had the horses tied to a light post not too far off. He stood by them waiting for Elijah to get back.
The wind was getting louder as it swept over the roads. Her hair was whisking in her face. Her eyes were as black as her hair. She wore an extra long black tank top and two long formal gloves. She always dragged an old trunk around.
The gloves were used to cover up her unnatural left hand. It had been snowing earlier in the evening. Now it was misting a bit, but it could be seen under the flickering streetlight. Most of them had long gone out. The area they were casing was one of the few remaining populated areas. Most of those that survived the thinning atmosphere had long ago left their homes.
It was said, in years that weren’t too far behind, that there was light all the time. The world didn’t stay in half-day year around. Isaac and Elijah had gone to look for supplies. The mouth to the long maze would close soon. So they had to be on their way.
All of the ground except the Searcher’s tracks was covered in a thick layer of muddy snow. Behind her, in the house, Elijah was screaming about something. She held onto the small globe tightly.
Inside the globe she saw the reflection of the gleaming light above, and all the lonely moths that had lost their way amongst the flame. They were drawn inexplicably up to it, as every person that walked the earth was drawn to Ra’s Patio. One of the moths looked gold. She figured she was just hallucinating, a common side-effect of Digitalis, and ignored it.
Looking for light, she thought, like us. Like all of us. She wondered if she had any more choice than they did. Aaron stared over at her, not saying a word, letting her know he was uncomfortable. At least he was ready to leave.
Elijah and Isaac had disappeared into the house about thirty minutes earlier. Just to see if they could find enough scrap metal to sell for some Digitalis at Roma’s, and some corn, wheat maybe. Enough, at least, to get them across the river and up to the shore of the giant mouth. Elijah had more on his mind, however. Roma had put something special aside for him.
There were four statues that led four ways through that maze. They all went different routes to the same place. A million roads to nowhere, as Elijah often said.
She looked up at the streetlight, watching all the tiny snowflakes coming down around it and all the tiny moths that circled it. When she looked back in the snow globe, she saw that the lights had gone out in the house behind her. Aaron looked over at her again. Behind her she heard the squatters shouting. Elijah was probably doing something stupid, or cruel, or both, and he was probably enjoying it.
Aaron left the horses and walked over to her, kneeling down beside her on the snow. She had the small globe cupped in her hands, looking at her reflection in it for a time. Aaron wiped his short, bushy hair out of his eyes and looked up at the moths.

Anne heard a gunshot from behind and closed her eyes. At the cross-section at the end of the road, she’d stopped to rest and take her injection and mind the horses. There was a small row of houses in front of her, all of which had long been deserted and stripped of any sort of value. A group of poorly dressed nomads crawled over the houses in front of her, shouting commands to each other.
Aaron left her on the curb and walked the long snow-lined sidewalk towards the house. The house was two-stories with a garage that had been propped open with a rake. Elijah was going to steal it, but since there was no real reason to steal it, he stole it anyway but just didn’t tell anyone about it. He’d get nothing from Roma’s for wood.
Lights burned away in the attic from small oil lamps. The other lights, subdued, flickered, lit up the snow covered bushes in front of the house.
Many years before, it had been the home of a well to do family. When everyone left the neighborhood, with their bags and sacks thrown over their shoulders, headed towards Ra’s Patio— they didn’t believe the legend of Ra’s Patio. They decided to stay and risk their luck with the wandering tribes of nomads and medicine men.
Aaron walked to the door and knocked, swallowing a dry lump in his throat. Three times, they told him, for him to request permission to come in. Twice for them to drop what they were doing and get out of sight. The Searcher’s, the Mantis Men, were always looking for looters on the roads. They carried flowers, dandelions for this reason. They were easy to spot and avoid once their bright search-lights came sneaking through the woods, sending snakelike strands of gold scattering onto the chipped and broken roads.
“If there isn’t a very special reason to be knocking on that door,” Elijah yelled at Aaron from the inside, “then you’re going to be the woman tonight.”
Elijah opened the door with a quick, silent motion, and stood in front of Aaron smiling. Looking into the house he saw a long white hallway leading into a small kitchen. At the end of it, where it turned off into a bedroom, he saw a foot twitching in the doorway.
“Who is that?” Isaac asked, dragging the owner of the house into the main hall by her hair.
“Do you know how much time she spent on that hair?” Elijah asked. “And look at you, ruining it. Some people have no respect.”
Isaac and Elijah, unlike Aaron or Anne, never wore their formal gloves to cover their palms—or more specifically, cover the small steel implant housed in their wrist. Elijah wiped his hair out of his face, drawing Aaron’s focus onto his palm.
It was caked in dirt, mud, and his fingernails were yellowed, chipped. And in his palm sat the locked in injection system with a long cylindrical vial running from the base of his middle finger to his wrist. This was why he was there in the first place. Inside his palm the tiny levers pumped the thick, black ink-like liquid into his bloodstream – making his eyes swell up like giant drops of oil.
Someone screamed in the other room as Aaron crossed the threshold into the home. Elijah was raking a long line of pots and pans off a marble countertop into burlap sack. Isaac threw the woman to the ground and stood in front of her. She lay back against the empty refrigerator, looking at her husband’s leg sticking out of the doorway, twitching in the hall. The corners of her slender lips twitched.
“It’s cute when they twitch like that, isn’t it? Makes it look like they’re almost alive,” Elijah said. He walked gracefully into the room with his overcoat flowing behind him. Aaron leaned against the countertop, which was covered with roaches, and raised his fist to crush one.
Elijah grabbed him by the wrist, flung it away, and pushed him towards the door.
“Leave ‘em alone,” Elijah said. “We’ve got a more dangerous and troublesome species to deal with. They’re probably valuable, though, considering most people think they’re extinct.”
Aaron withdrew and watched the bugs crawl on in happy freedom.
“It’s safe to say,” Elijah said, gesturing to the twitching feet on the floor, “that Insurance Salesman Bob has ran out of policies to sell. It’s a pity too, because he doesn’t have life insurance and you’re about to be left with one hell of a bill.”
“Elijah,” Isaac said with his eyes closed, gun pointed at the tall, slender, blonde-haired woman on the floor, “just shut up.”
He looked down at the woman, at all the tiny lines of mascara slinking down her face. He smiled.
“Ok, let’s have a civilized conversation,” Elijah said. He sat on the floor and smiled. “We’re going to have a sophisticated conversation here. Ok? You’re going to tell us where you keep the rest of your metals, yes we found the pots and pans, or I’m going to kill you. No, no, don’t be scared. I’ll let you talk about your day. You have to be a good girl, though. Can you be a good girl?”
Aaron trembled at his usage of dialogue. It sounded like some sort of cheesy science fiction cliché. It sounded unnatural and forced, hollow, without emotion or weight. For a moment he felt a strange, out-of-body sensation. It seemed as though he hovered a moment above himself, looking down—watching the man’s twitching foot in the doorway.
Aaron looked at the woman on the floor. He trembled when he saw her bloodshot eyes dart around the room, frantic like. Aaron saw what she was looking for and hoped, prayed even, that Elijah didn’t see what the woman was so worried about. Aaron thought that a gun was more useful than a prayer, but a prayer couldn’t hurt. Especially not in such a situation—especially when Elijah is in control of the situation. He was unpredictable and had little regard for human life, especially his own.
By a fireplace in the other room, against the wall, lay a young girl with crying eyes and tangled hair. A look of fear stapled to her face. Elijah disappeared into the long dark of the hallway after knocking the pictures off the wall.
“Look, just give us what you have and we’ll leave,” Elijah repeated. “If we don’t get what we need, we’ll starve. It’s me or you; that’s survival. And it’s going to be me every time.”
She stared at him with her lips quivering and mouth open. She breathed in giant breathless gasps.
He put the gun to her temple and said, “Look, if you don’t give us what we need, we’ll kill you. That’s it,” he snapped his fingers, “and you’re out. Riding the pine express, poof. You think it matters to if there’s one less dead bitch in the world? Animal skins are more valuable than you are. There are thousands of people just like you, you know? Hell, it’d be a favor to kill you. At least you wouldn’t have to stay alive and deal with what we go through. It’s not always a tragedy to die; sometimes the tragedy is just being alive, or watching everything you love get taken from you.”
She refused him again. She shook her head.
The reflection in the mother’s eyes showed where the girl was hiding. She was huddled in a corner, clinging to a dishrag.
Elijah startled the girl when he pointed the gun at her. She screamed and tried to run. He sprung from the floor and grabbed her by the waist, carried her into the living room, and flung her to the floor beside her mother.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” he said, trying to sing, and shot her mother between the eyes. Aaron turned his head when the little girl started screaming.
“Elijah’s gonna buy you a mockingbird,” he went on, and knelt and put the gun to the girl’s head. “Or else I would have if they weren’t extinct,” he joked, laughing out loud. “Maybe a hummingbird, perhaps, there are a few of those around.”
Aaron put his fingers in his ears, turning the other way as he had so often done in the past.
“Don’t shoot her,” Isaac said, walking over towards him with his long, resolute stride. “Just give her one of these,” he went on, taking a small, yellow pill out of a capped vial in his vest.
“Is it really much better? The ends are the same,” Elijah said, wiping his mouth with his pistol. “Life is just a million different roads to the same place. A million roads to nowhere. No matter where you go or what you do, the ends are the same.”
“Yeah, aren’t they all? But think of it like you’re walking to one of those detention centers they have out further west. You know it’s not going to be good once you get there, so you might as well take the scenic route.”
“What’s the point, though? Regardless, you’re still going to be in prison.”
Isaac shoved him towards the door. Aaron took his eyes from Elijah and looked to the floor as he passed, heading towards the horses that Aaron left under Anne’s sleepy supervision.
“Do you remember when things were brighter?” Isaac asked the little girl. She looked terrified; her breathless sobs came out in short heaves,
“Brighter?” she asked, wiping her chin with the butt of her hand. “It’s never been brighter.”
“Yeah, before it was like it is now. When things went as they should? Before it was, you know, half night all the time?”
“No,” she sobbed, “but I’ve heard about it.”
“It’s too cloudy, ittin’ it? All the time with the clouds, they’re too heavy. That’s why we barely see the sun. Have you ever been swimming?”
She shook her head. “Water ration won’t allow it,” she said.
“Take this then,” he said. He handed her the tiny pill.
“Now imagine the sun is out again. Before the dust cloud. And you’re there, by the water. Mommy’s waiting.”

“Why do you always do that to kids?” Elijah asked. “Why don’t you give adults that same preferential treatment?”
“They’re old enough to be assholes,” Isaac replied.
“I’ve known assholes under the age of six,” Elijah said, “that you’ve shown the same preferential treatment to.”
“Just let it go, Elijah.”
“No,” he said, “It’s bullshit. What changed about you, exactly? You go from sneaking up behind people and shooting them in the back of the head to sounding like a babysitter. Something is wrong. Are you hiding something?”
“Then what is it? Are you in recession? Have you ran out of Digitalis?”
“Are you pregnant?”
“Not the last time I checked. Though I haven’t had my period in years.”
“It’s that diary,” Elijah said. “You’ve been acting different since you got it.”
“You’re absurd,” Isaac said, “and an asshole.”
“That’s a common reaction to me,” said Elijah, “Some people are actually allergic. You may experience symptoms of nausea, aversion, or extreme sexual attraction. Discontinue use if rash or irritation occurs…”
“Just please shut up,” Isaac said.
“Yeah, I’m going to.”
They gathered around the streetlight with the pots and pans and chunks of metal they’d managed to steal. This area was one of the few remaining areas where people actually lived, but other nomads had picked the houses clean like buzzard’s. The dust cloud over the planet expanded and constricted, blotting out the stars and sky. It pulsed above them, ebbing, flowing, bulging in and out. All the houses and corner stores were empty; the clerks and families long ago left for Ra’s Patio or got carried off on one of those horrible wagons.
Their haul wouldn’t bring in much at Roma’s. The metal could be melted into weapons, used to make shelter, but everybody brought metal to Roma’s caravanserai. A larger group of people appeared in the clearing that led into the road. Anne stood up, put her snow globe in her trunk, and hid behind Elijah.
The leader of the small group yelled out, slapped his chest. He pointed to his hand. The other people in his group yelled out. Elijah and Isaac were outnumbered by the other group, but they had a working pistol.
Elijah slid it from the inside of his jacket, held it up so they could see the reflection of the metal in the glare of the streetlight. The other nomads mumbled amongst themselves. They wore dirty rags, torn and ripped around the edges. Their hair clung to their face with thick strips of mud.
Seeing the gun, the leader of the other band yelled out again. The others in his band did the same, slapping their chests and jumping up and down. Elijah fired into the air. The gunshot echoed down the empty street, through all the empty houses. Elijah threw his bag to the ground and ran across the road, brandishing the gun. The tallest of the tribe turned on his heel to run, tripped over a stick and fell to the ground. The remaining men of the group scurried through the woods. They laughed and hollered as they skipped through the woods.
The man that tripped lay face down in the mud, blowing air bubbles as he breathed.
“Digitalis?” Elijah asked.
“Ahjara, samra alleh hoom,” the man replied. “Illa ahwey sanra hoom!”
Elijah rolled him over. The man wore a tattered white shirt, wrinkled and stained. Under his shirt a necklace made of chicken feet swung back and forth. Elijah felt a dry place in his throat when he saw the twisted toes constricted together by reflex. He was a medicine man. After searching his pockets, his thighs, his horse skin shoes, his pockets, he found nothing and grew angry with all the energy and Digitalis he’d wasted searching him.
Elijah knew he might be able to get some Digitalis for the necklace around his neck, but the man himself was worth little more than the Digitalis required to keep him alive. Elijah tore the necklace off and pocketed it.
“Ahjara, Digitalis samra hoom,” Elijah said. He thumbed back the hammer to his pistol and stuck it to the man’s head.
Isaac yelled out like an animal. He slapped his chest and flung his hands, and the empty street echoed again when Elijah’s gun went off.Chapter 4
Anne’s Snow Globe

“I did the first chapter,” Herman said, waking me up. The television hissed with static in the living room.
“Nice,” I said, “but I’ve got to get home. Got a lot to not do tomorrow. And my brother is going to be pissed off.”
“Alright,” he said, “I’m going to bed, so I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Bring your guitar over and we’ll play a little bit. I have something I want you to watch; it’s a video they recorded at a blues festival in Goose Creek. You will come watch it, won’t you? Your daddy was there, I think. But yeah, come over tomorrow. Tell your dad I really don’t need any money, so I’ll teach you for free. If I can teach you anything, you actually might be able to teach me something. You’re talented, a prodigy! Talent gets a discount, but genius is on the house. Ha-ha! You will come back, won’t you?”
“Yes, I’ll come back.”
I walked home that night. The Leisure View apartments were at the end of a dead-end road. There were three roads leading to the apartment complexes and he lived on the last turn-off. Something glittered through the trees in the small forest behind his house. A turn off through the woods led to a clearing. In the middle of it, over a small stream, was a small bridge made of an old car door. There was a turn off in the woods that led into a clearing, and in the middle of it was a bridge some friends and I made as children.
Something golden glittered at the mouth of the opening. It lit the edge of the woods, sending shimmers across the dew soaked nighttime leaves. It looked like a lightning bug.
I came into the opening near the streetlight. Its cables dangled through the twisted trees. Its light cast a blue shimmer on the small area of grassless weeds and old beer bottles.
Something resembling a golden moth fluttered towards it. Beads of silver trailed behind it as it spiraled upward.
My grandmother was waiting behind the door when I showed up. No idea what time it was.
“You shouldn’t be staying so late at that man’s house,” she said. “I don’t like you going over there.”
“Why not?” I asked, “He’s a nice guy.”
“He’s crazy,” she said. “Has been ever since that wreck.”
“What wreck?”
“He was in the army with your daddy. One day they were on their way home from Fort Jackson and he blanked out at the wheel. The car swerved off the road and a man in the truck, Mike something, got killed. Herman lost his finger, and got discharged.”
“Blanked out?” I asked. “That’s not what he says.”
“He took a lot of pills because his head was hurtin’ him and he blanked out. That’s what he told them anyway. That man ‘a sure tell you a lie in a heartbeat.”
“Well, I’m going to bed.”
My brother was staring out the window by his bed. The blinds were pulled back and a cigarette was wasting away in the ashtray.
“What are you looking at?” I asked.
“Heard a noise,” he said, crawling back into bed, “Then looked out the window. There was somebody on the deck. All I saw was their shadow anyway. Probably some homeless guy trying to take a bath in the pool again.”
“Probably,” I shrugged. “I’m going to sleep.”
“You’ve been at the retarded dude’s house, right?” he asked.
“He’s not retarded,” I said. “God damn. He’s not that bad.”
“He’s retarded,” my brother said again. “He got arrested not too long ago for breaking some shit at the Fast Stop. It was hilarious. I heard he can play the hell out of a guitar, though.”
“Yeah, he plays guitar, piano, saxophone, violin—it’s crazy. That’s not the trait of a retard.”
“He’s retarded. Face it.”
“How do you know that?” I pressed. “Did you get your medical degree while I was gone?”
“Throwing a jar of pickles at someone in a convenience store seems conclusive enough.”
“Well, I wasn’t aware of that. But, people don’t say I’m retarded and … you know.”
“There’s a difference in borderline genius crazy and borderline retard crazy,” he said. “You let your mind get to you and it drove you crazy. He doesn’t have a brain, and that drives him mad. Conversely, there’s a chicken on the deck.”
“I’m too tired for this,” I said, getting up. “I’m going to sleep. If you need to get in touch with me, don’t.”

It was just after one when I showed up the next day. Herman was sitting in his chair with potato chip crumbs covering his greasy tank top. His balding head was bathed in the faint light of a wall mounted lamp. Elizabeth was sitting on the couch, practicing her scales in quiet.
“I’ve done the first chapter,” he said. He seemed excited about it.
“That’s really good,” Elizabeth said. She tucked her violin to the side.
When I sat down, there was a notebook in my hand. I didn’t remember having it when I showed up, but ignored it.
In the corner of his room there were a couple of yellow gardening gloves.
I gestured to them and asked, “Have you been working in your garden lately?”
“I found those earlier today,” he said. “I don’t know where they’re from. They wasn’t here last night, sure ‘nuff.”
Herman had a strange little smile on his face.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked.
“All the stuff we used to do,” he said.
“Like what?”
“Like how alive the streets were at night. Right down the main strip in Nashville. All them lights were pretty and dancin’ and makin’ all kinds of noise. If I can finish this little booksy here, I be just like that again. Important, ha! Important again.”
“What’s something you remember specifically?” Elizabeth asked him.
“Sitting on the curb with my guitar on my lap and my case open beside me. People would come by and listen and clap along and sometimes they’d give me a bit of money. Drop a bit ‘a change in my case there. Sometimes I’d just sit out on the curb in front of the Hard Rock café and listen to the people that walked up and down the roads. They went by laughin’ and drinkin’ and singin’ bar songs. Some were with their wives and some were with their buddies. It didn’t matter to me then, because I was there. I wasn’t here… I was there. If I wasn’t playing on one of the stages, I’d play in one of the smaller bars. Or just sit out in front of a blues club and just listen to ‘em play. People even liked listening to me talk then. It mattered. It seemed like the gutters talked to me when I sat out on those curbs. Ain’t that silly? Gutters don’t talk. But when the trash blew by, it sounded like gutters were singing to me. That’s what I remember the most. The strange whistling noise those gutters made.”
His eyes had their familiar blank expression. “Ah!” he shouted. “I gotta show you something, Philip.”
“You won’t believe who’s on this,” he said, “About three years ago, maybe four, because this was before I got my windshield kicked out when we moved down here…” He paused for a moment. “When we first moved down here, things weren’t so good… This tape… this tape has…This place was decent when we moved in. Look at it now, all of these boxes, we need to move them out. It’s been a while since we moved here.”
“We?” Elizabeth asked. “Who lives here with you?”
“My friend Mike.”
I remembered what my mother said about the man killed in that wreck.
“Who is that?” she asked.
“He’s my hummingbird,” he said. “I’ll show you tonight if you remind me, but not now. Why don’t y’all stay a while first? He’s a pretty bird. I promise I ‘a show ‘em to you. I found him out back. He came out of nowhere it seemed. I looked up his species, and they’re not supposed to be in this part of the world. So I really don’t know how he got here… I sure am glad he is though. He talks to me at night when the ceilin’ leaks… That ceilin’ leaks all the time, I swear. ”
Elizabeth nodded. She tapped on her violin case. Herman stood there looking down at the record.
“Who’s on the record?” I asked.
“Me and your dad playing at a small bluegrass festival upstate. He was pickin’ good that day, lord he was pickin’ good! I swear I ain’t lyin.’”
Hearing him say that made me think of what my dad told me, about how he was a liar and made all of his stories up. I didn’t want to believe he did. In all honesty, though, I didn’t care if he did. It made no difference. If he had dignity in delusion, then that was better than no dignity at all. He put the record on and we listened to it together. Me, him, and Elizabeth. She seemed to be bored with it, and kept tapping her violin case. Herman had a giant, gaping grin on his face.
Thousands of people are living their lives like this right now. In dark, close, stale smelling houses. Shut off from the entire world like roaches in the dark. You won’t hear about them on the news, or go to their memorial service. They just disappear, gradually, and no one notices. Then, looking back, you wonder when they left.
His antique phone rang in the other room. His eyes darted towards the kitchen and he jumped up, racing to the phone.
“Yello?” he breathed, with labored breaths. He stood there minute with the phone clutched to his ear. After a minute, he hung up the phone and walked back into the living room with a dejected look on his face.
“Who was it?” I asked, looking around for my guitar pick. I could only use one type of pick, and it was lost. I’d taken one of Herman’s old flamenco guitars off the wall and strummed a riff in A# minor.
“All I heard was static,” he said. “Every time I said something, it’d just echo back in static a second later. Probably a prank call. Technology ain’t makin’ the world no better. Just more confusing.”
“Can I have a cigarette, please?” Elizabeth asked, glancing towards me with her huge, blank eyes – forever fixed in an un-seeing stare.
I gave her a cigarette and lit it for her. Herman’s face reddened when she took a pull.
“So, what’s the book about?” I asked Herman to get his mind off me contributing to the delinquency of minors. He shrugged and looked about nervously for a minute or two, fencing with me. I persisted.
“Four people are looking for this place,” Herman began, “it’s kind of like a post-apocalyptic novel, but not quite. They have these implant things in their hands that they need to survive. It’s not pre-apocalypse either. It’s…the memory of the way the world was, when it was better, is very much alive. And everybody is trying to find a way to make things like they were when they were better. Everybody tells stories about the way things were, and nobody believes them. The whole world has dimmed, you know, it’s always dusk, half-night. A big ‘ol dustcloud swallows up the whole Earth. They can’t even see the stars ‘cause ‘a how dark it is. Kind of like it is in here with those trash bags over the windows. The atmosphere is thinner so they all need to take a drug to survive. They’re completely addicted to it, dependent on it. Without it they can’t find what they’re looking for. They call it Digitalis.” Elizabeth’s ears perked up as though she recognized the name.
“What are they looking for?” Elizabeth asked.
“They’re looking for a place where the sun still shines. And all the people that have died are waiting there for them. It’s like they’re all looking for a backdoor into heaven.”
“Aren’t we all?” I asked.
Elizabeth looked at me and smiled.
With my hands planted on a small stack of cardboard boxes, I rose to my feet and headed for the door.
“I gotta run,” I said.
“Hey, wait,” he yelled from the other room, catching up to me. “Take this with you.” He picked up the white sleeve the vinyl record was in.
“Tell your daddy that I’m going to come and see him whenever I get over this bronchitis—I have some medicine I take and it should be better soon—I’ll come see him. Tell him I’ll bring my fiddle and play it for him. He always liked that when he was little. He still live behind the old school? That’s where he lived when we used to get together and pick.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s on the hill in front of the woods that lead to the back of the school. I’ll tell him when I see him.”
“Good, good! Hey, come over tomorrow. We’ll play a little bit—but I want to show you what I have of the story so far. I’m thinking of putting somebody like you in it, if you don’t mind. We’ll play a little bit, a little bit. You know… just to pass the time, buddy. Just to pass the time…So just come by and say hey. Elizabeth will be here, I hope, and we can have some sandwiches.”
He lifted the latch on the old screen door, opening it for me. It squeaked as it opened.
I was convinced to go over again, solely because he told me about making me a book character. It isn’t often that one has a chance to be fictional. I leaned back into the room and waved at Elizabeth out of stupidity.
She waved back. Could she really have seen me? I had a nauseous feeling in my stomach, but I probably deserved it.
“Bye,” I forced out, heading out onto his small, crowded front porch.
“Goodbye,” she said and smiled.
“Hey,” I called to her, “will you try to find my guitar pick?”
“What does it look like? I’ll look for it.”
“It’s small and red. It has Dunlop Jazz III written on it.”
She nodded. I turned to walk towards the windswept road.
She left a few hours later and Herman shut the latch, locked his door, and made his way back through his crowded living room. Writing had cheered him a bit. So he figured he’d fix a glass of orange juice, a sandwich for his bird and a sandwich for him, and make his way back to his typewriter to work.

As it neared midnight, my telephone rang.
“Hello?” I breathed, ah, ah, ah. “Who is this?”
“Thomas,” Herman shouted, “I need you to come over.”
He hung up. So, I pulled up my pants, put on my shoes, and snuck out the back door. At the end of my road I turned down another, then at the end of it took a left. It led into the clearing with the car door bridge and solitary streetlight.
When I got to Herman’s he was standing in the doorway in boxers, wearing a dirty tank top. He had a crumpled picture in his hands.
“Look!” he shouted. “I think it’s you.”
He produced a picture of my father, my real father, holding me as a child. If it wasn’t me, it was a strange baby resembling me that my father somehow stole for the sole purpose of taking a picture to let me find one day to assure me that he really cared.
“I’m sleepy,” I said, taking the picture. “I have to go. It’s after one, man.”
“Can you stay here tonight?” he asked. “I’ll give you money… I’ve been hearing stuff outside. I don’t know what it is, buddy, and I ain’t strong enough to defend myself.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing, man. Just somebody trying to get home. Just grabbed the wrong door, that’s all.”
“They knocked on my door,” he said. “I was looking for this picture, sitting in the corner over there, and they knocked on the door. It was really loud, and I was scared. Come on, won’t you stay just ‘til I get to sleep and make sure they don’t get me?”
“Sure,” I said. “Put on a jazz record so I can go to sleep.” He obliged and went back to his bedroom.
A minute later he ran back in the room. “I forgot to tell you!” he shouted. “Some man came into the house. I didn’t unlock the door so how did he get in? He said his name was Wyatt. He looked around for a minute, then he left. He even grabbed his gardening gloves.”
“What did he look like?”
“A janitor.”
“Well, I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Thank you, Philip.”

For the first thirty minutes he laid back with his hands behind his head, thinking about his nights in downtown Nashville when what he did still mattered. He remembered the smell of the cracked and splintered cement, the muffled notes ringing out from the blues clubs in the evening, staggering people singing songs, and watching the trash blow along the gutter at his feet.
He thought of all the people that came to listen to him play on the curb. Their children would stand and look at him with smiling faces. They liked him then.
Another song! he remembered their voices, play us another one!
After he fed his hummingbird, he stopped at his kitchen table and turned on a small lamp. Roaches scattered. He sighed, digging through his letters—hoping that he’d get one from his son, Joe. Or sometimes he called him Bo. Sometimes he called him Jane. He could never remember where he was or who he was, but he did know this: he never saw him anymore. He disappeared. He’s probably ashamed, Herman thought, ashamed of his father living in such a filthy and stinking place. There were no letters from people, just from bill collectors.
He moped into the living room and sat down in front of me. He looked through his pictures and flyers and put on an old record, turning off my music without even looking at me. The steady arpeggios of Townes van Zandt filled the empty room and calmed the rapid voices in his head. He ran his fingers through his balding hair for a minute.
He flipped through a small picture book. The first picture was of him sitting in an old rocking chair in the snow. His beard was well trimmed then, and thicker, as was his hair. He had a dobro on his lap. A young child stood beside him, smiling, wearing mittens and snow boots.
In the corner of his bedroom was a chair with red cushions and golden trim. Beside it was an arched lamp with a golden tassel dangling from it. He dragged his stack of papers over to it, sat them down beside the chair, and began to work on his story again. As he wrote, he still heard the whistling gutters in his head and all the sounds and shouts and music.
With the image of the nighttime, crawling with electric lights and people, in his brain—he began pecking at the keys again.

All through the night he crept back into the living room. He asked if I was hungry or thirsty. He asked if anyone had called. He checked the ringer on the phone to make sure he hadn’t turned it off. At times he’d go through the settings on his phone, checking the power and cable connections, just to make sure that his phone wasn’t malfunctioning.
“Can you turn the music down a bit?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Didn’t mean to keep you up.”
“Nah, it’s alright buddy. Just keeps Mike up, that’s all. Don’t you hear him buzzin’ round in there? He don’t sleep.”
I nodded, turned down the music, and pulled a book—Cosmos by Carl Sagan—from my back pocket.
Time seemed to crawl, but the book was enjoyable, so it didn’t much matter. Late into the morning, he sauntered into the room again.
“You speak French, dontcha?” he asked, rubbing the back of his head.
“A little,” I replied, “A little.”
“I want to use a French word in something. What can you say in French that means ‘Place of Light’ or something similar?”
“Endroit de Lumière,” I said, “means ‘place of light.’ I think. My French isn’t what it used to be.”
“Thanks,” he said, “I’ll get back to work now.”
He went back to work. I went back to Cosmos.
Chapter 5
The Kiss of Caiaphas

“Get up,” Elijah said. Anne stood and looked at him shyly. She hated him, without a doubt, but he intimidated her. He neared six foot eight inches in height and had a leathery, weathered look about him.
Anne looked at her feet when he passed. His grey burlap sack was thrown over his shoulder. The sounds of pots and pans clanging together startled Anne a bit, reminding her of how she came to be in the small group’s company. Indignant to them for saving her, she’d turned into not much more than a slave and bartering chip with rival tribes and nomads.
That’s how things went. People reverted to much more isolated groups. Groups were based on convenience, since they would all break apart at the maze anyway, and the remaining million or so human beings, with bags over their shoulders, set off in long caravans towards the mouth of Ra’s great maze.
Elijah and Isaac provided the food, scrap metals, and handled the other tribes. On occasion if the Searcher’s rolled by, with their mantis-like masks draped like long, leather ovals over their face, Anne would usually allow them to do anything they’d like to her—save for drag her ‘round on the back of one of their wagons, all the way up to the Vanishing Rivers. If anyone was taken, no one would see them again. They’d disappear as if they never lived at all. A flower would replace them where they had been and they were gone.
She put her snow globe in her trunk beside a ragged, mysterious old book, one she’d found not too long before at one of the Pile’s—where everything of little value was taken. At any of the Pile’s, you’d find many things once considered luxury. There were air conditioners, automobiles that no one had gas for anymore, radios, books. Along with this, you’d be sure to see huge stacks of toothbrushes and shaving cream.
Closing the trunk she saw a quiet golden glow trickle out the sides just as it snapped shut. She opened the chest again and looked down in the snow globe. She thought she saw a face, like hers but different—but her vision was never too clear. The only thing she saw with clarity was her snow globe.
“What did you get, sir?” she asked Elijah with her head down, fiddling at her left wrist.
“Don’t pick at it,” Elijah said and slapped her hand; “It’ll get infected. Do you know how hard it was to get that for you? And if that Digitalis ever dries up, so will you. Go ahead and play with it, if you want to do the gene pool a favor.”
“Yes,” she said, “yes, sir.”
“Stop with the sir shit, please,” he said, slapping her hand again.
“What’d you get?” she asked.
“Some pots and pans. Soup, chicken soup, chicken broth, and—ah, that’s about it.”
“Chicken broth?” Aaron asked..
Elijah shuddered. “Nobody eats that shit,” he said. “There’s no way anybody can. Who wants chicken flavored liquid? What’s it even made of? I think people just use it to intimidate the other tribes, just in case they ask for food. Either that or they put it by the other foods so they’ll feel better about themselves. Everybody has it, but nobody eats it! It’s like an ornament. Chickens are extinct, so what’s in the can?”
Aaron looked at Elijah’s eyes as they glassed over. For a moment he thought it looked like Elijah was about to cry. But he never did. He doubted that someone could hate chicken broth so much. There had to be some other reason.
Isaac stood by himself in the gravel turn-out by the mailbox in the empty, snow-covered front yard. He stared down the street, looking at the long line of shadows and flickering streetlights that lined the snowy road. Under a light not too far down the road he saw a small glimmer, like a limelight peaking through the twilight.
Taking a small notebook from his vest, Isaac jotted random notes. If it was shiny, he knew, he’d get more than pots and pans for it down at Roma’s. Pots and pans, he knew, were for food. Silver and gold, clocks and things—that was for Digitalis. Demand was heavy, he knew as well, but Roma was a friend of his.
Thousands of people died a day beating down the sheet-rocked wall of Roma’s. Throwing their bloody fists against his doors and windows, desperate for the only thing that could keep them alive long enough to get to the Patio..
If he couldn’t trade it, he’d just toss it in the Vanishing Rivers when they crossed. As people got older, they feared the Rivers with total, and absolute terror. If someone was thrown in there, they disappeared—vanished. Whenever someone was taken, the Searcher’s would leave behind a dandelion. This let everyone know they were gone for good. They turned into phantoms in the water, splashing about like thin grey silhouettes.
“Elijah,” Isaac called.
“A minute!” Elijah screamed. He turned his attention back to Anne.
Many of the homes along the road had been burnt to the ground by the other nomads or the Mantis Men. Many of the homes smoked or burnt silently in giant heaps of rubble.
The Mantis Men stalked the small and lonely roads before half-day, when the sun drifted as a grey-ghost across the zenith and then all the lonely alleyways at night.
These were the Searcher’s or the Mantis Men: they were tall, all of them, dressed in long green suits. There were three yellow stripes wrapped around their left wrist and yellow buttons up the front. They flushed out the worthless, old, the withered. They disposed of the stupid and the weak. They were nature’s garbage men.
If their flashlights caught you in the woods at night, their silent wheels rolling over the soft, dead grass, the only thing to do was pretend to be asleep. This didn’t always work, of course, but not many tribes had working weapons.
They wore their masks for the same reason Anne wore formal gloves. On her left hand there was the same cylindrical black vial. Digitalis was pumped directly into her blood by a series of tiny levers and pistons that whirred like tiny tea-kettles. Since the Mantis Men thought they were above drugs, they hid themselves behind their long, green leather mask and wheezing respirator.
“Elijah,” Isaac called again. “Come look at this.”
“What?” Elijah asked, walking up behind him.
“Look,” Isaac gestured towards the black, lifeless lump in the middle of the road. At the end of it was a tiny glimmer. Probably a necklace, Isaac thought, or maybe a watch. Watches were invaluable. Not as much as animals on the seller’s market, but still very valuable.
“Probably a watch,” Elijah said. He dropped his sack and stared towards the end of the misting street. It had been snowing early, as it did almost all the time, but it had slighted to not much more than a fine mist.
Elijah started after it with his long quick strides. Isaac followed behind him, shaking his head. Cocky shit, Isaac thought.
Arriving at the man’s side they saw what he was holding onto: a small, golden pocket watch—stopped at fifteen after ten. The man was old and bald, wearing dirty jogging pants torn at the knees. His pockets were turned inside-out, and his hand implant had been taken. He was dying when he splayed out in the streets and he knew it. The people in his party had taken whatever else he carried. Somehow he managed to keep his watch.
“Guess he didn’t want to be dead and late,” Elijah said.
Isaac glared at him.
“How are you?” Elijah taunted the man.
Isaac stared at him with disapproval. “Could you just give up the tough man act for a minute?” he asked. “Just take it from him and leave. You don’t have to taunt him. It’s unnecessary.”
Aaron stood by himself. He brushed down the horses. Anne had slumped onto her knees. Her long, silky black hair was wafting in her eyes again, again looking down into her snow globe under the silent, flickering streetlight. She listened to Elijah and Isaac’s arguing, which was common.
“Alright, we’ll make this easy on me,” Elijah said, grabbing the dying man by the hair. “You give me the watch and I won’t kill you.” Hearing these words slip from his mouth, he felt a twinge inside his chest. The kind of twinge he had when he said almost anything. It felt cheap, forced, and completely hollow.
“I’d rather die,” coughed the man, “than give you this watch.”
“Look,” Elijah said, “if you don’t give me the watch, I’m just going to kill you and then take it. Then I’m going to do weird shit to you.”
Isaac shook his head. Elijah would never change, he seemed fashioned from a rigid, unbending mold.
“Then take it,” said the man, “when you kill me.”
“Fair enough,” said Elijah. He took his gun from his waist. Isaac turned his head when Elijah knelt down and stuck the gun to the man’s head.
“Night-night,” Elijah whispered in his ear and pulled the trigger. The gunshot echoed down the empty windswept road, in and out of the empty houses. A smile crept onto Elijah’s face, a nonchalant, sardonic sort of smile.
Isaac stared at the bleeding face of the man on the ground, and the blood seeping from his head into the snow covered cement drive.
Elijah knelt beside him, picked up the watch, and kissed him on the cheek.
Anne jumped and dropped her globe. It rolled over on its side. Strange, she thought. It didn’t shatter.
“So jumpy,” Elijah laughed. “These people are too jumpy. They have no color in their blood.”
Isaac nodded. They together walked back towards the streetlight. Inexplicably drawn back to it.
“Do you have any sort of compassion?” Isaac asked as they approached Anne and Aaron. Aaron brought the horses over.
“Why should I have compassion?” Elijah asked. “Nature doesn’t have compassion. It’s evolution. The weak and the stupid die out. That’s how it is.”
Isaac shrugged.
“Do you ever talk, or do you just sit around like a retard?” Elijah asked. “Do you need to get laid? Anne is right over there. Sure she stinks, but…”
Anne looked at him with a frown on her face.
“Enough man,” Isaac said. “I’ve got a headache.”
“Why don’t you ever talk anymore?” Elijah probed. “Did you forget your name again? Did you forget who you are?”
“No. Nothing to say, and when I do talk people don’t much care anyway. So it’s kind of pointless.”
“It’s kind of boring.”
“No, I just have nothing to say,” Isaac said. “People like you more if you don’t talk so much.”
Elijah nodded, but was sure Isaac was hiding something.
They’d be able to make it to the mill before long, but would certainly stop by Roma’s first. Elijah was almost out and had sold everything except what they’d just taken. Isaac had a bit more than anybody, but it was probable that he was in recession. Once recession started, things became unclear: you forget your name and who you are, where you are.
“Want me to take that for you, sir?” Aaron asked.
They ignored him. Isaac gave him a pensive nod when Elijah wasn’t looking. He hung his head, embarrassed and ashamed. After a minute, they went on with their conversation as though he wasn’t there.
“This’ll be enough for at least one,” Elijah whispered to Isaac as they climbed onto their horses. “Maybe two. We can split it between us and just say we didn’t get anything. The mute won’t be around much longer anyway, I hope. As for Aaron? Forget him. Isaac, look at me.”
Isaac looked at him with a strained expression on his face.
“Don’t matter, don’t matter,” replied Isaac, “but I don’t want them to starve.”
“What’s with this Mother Goose shtick? There’re a few women out there twice as good and half as cheap as Anne. She doesn’t even talk. She just sits around looking into that snow globe. I should’ve never opened that trunk.”
“We won’t be with her much longer,” Isaac said with a sigh. “So don’t worry with her, we’ll make it to Roma’s by mid-day tomorrow. We might be able to sell her there. If not, we can trade her for something. Maybe one of those fifty-gallon pumps. You know the ones I’m talking about, right?”
“Yeah, those fuckers are heavy too.”
“You know, Sam says the air is getting thinner.”
“I’ve seen people lose their shit when they run out,” Elijah said, “and I mean really lose their shit. They see things that aren’t there, hear things that aren’t sounds, and just basically act peculiar.”
They rode along for a minute in quiet. Anne was walking a bit behind them. Aaron was about ten paces behind her. Checking, as he did, for the Searcher’s wagons and lights out in the dark woods around their path.
“What have they said about the disappearances?” Elijah asked after a minute, lighting a cigarette.
“Nobody really knows. They’ve been disappearing for a while, and people always think something supernatural is going on. People are superstitious animals, you know. This guy I talked to not too long ago was out of his mind with conspiracy theories. ‘The world went dark from war,’ he says ‘Nuclear weapons ruined the atmosphere.’”
Tapping his wrist, Elijah said, “I’m about out.”
“Me too.”
They strode into a small clearing. Sticks and stems broke underneath their feet. On both sides were long, gnarled up trees with twisted branches. They’d be able to sleep in the open space. If the Mantis Men came up, they would hear the branches breaking, they’d see their flashlights cut through the woods, and they’d be able to get away.
“Here,” Elijah said and handed Aaron his grey sack. He jumped off the horse and handed Aaron the reigns. Isaac did the same and Aaron tied them to one of the sturdier trees.
It was widely believed, especially in the more deserted circles towards the waste lands and abandoned cities, that most animals had gone extinct. Human beings, by estimation, weren’t too far from it. Those that didn’t have the strength, or the intellect, to get Digitalis, or enough to get a respiration mask, died and left their pale bodies sprawled about the roads.
Every now and then a fly might pass, or hummingbird. Other than that, animals were few and far between. Moths seemed to survive in abundance but were one of the few animals that did. Even though human beings had started disappearing, moths seemed to be thriving in the thin air.
“Don’t let her run off with our things,” Elijah called to Aaron.
“Yes, sir,” Aaron replied. He knew to behave—Elijah wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. They’d take the Digitalis from him too, and he’d go mad and suffocate. He’d die by the campfire, flopping around like a fish on land, going gulp-gulp for air too thin.
That’s how he felt already: dead, or as good as dead, but still flopping. He didn’t really know where they were going, or why, but all he knew is that he had to at this point. He didn’t want to go at all. It was something like heaven, people said. Or so they’d heard: nobody had ever returned from the other side once they made it. It was thought that many of the people died inside the maze. Only the strongest would make it through. It bothered him to know that he didn’t want to go, but was somehow drawn to the idea. Something, or someone, was controlling him.
“Do you remember flowers?” Aaron asked Anne. He knelt beside her on the soft dirt of the path between the trees.
“I’m cold,” she said, “but I’ve seen pictures of them. That’s all I have, pictures. That’s all we have—pictures are the only thing that can always remind us how pretty the world can be. They’re not in good shape. Though. Some of them were taken during the Ten Year Gap, I think.”
“I thought nobody could find those?”
“My mother had been in the hills behind our house one day, looking for some food. This was a long time before the tribe stormed into my home, cut my mother’s throat—she was too old—stole all our pots and pans and metal, burnt our house down and put me in a cage.
“We were always hungry. That’s what I remember more than anything from my childhood. That hunger, that animal like hunger. We didn’t want delicacy. We wanted to live, you know? We were just kids then, you know, me and my brother, but we knew she couldn’t find any birds or squirrels.
“She was on her way back with a basket of berries and a ledge gave out, making her drop the basket and slide down the hill. She landed on the trunk that I carry around. We never figured out how to get it open. But Elijah got it open.”
“What was in it?” Aaron asked, “Just pictures?”
“No,” Anne replied, “there were two books. One of them was falling apart. She threw it on the fire. We couldn’t read it. Ha-ha, we certainly couldn’t eat it.”
Aaron was silent for a minute.
Anne looked behind them to the streetlight again, now faint in the distance shining through the trees. She sighed. “Where are we going, Aaron?” she asked.
“I don’t really know where we’re going, how we’re getting there, or anything really. They call it Ra’s Patio, and that’s enough. Some call it Ra’s Portico. Others have been known to call it Endroit de Lumière. They say the sun shines there. All the time, or so that’s what they say.”
“Is it really so much better there?
“They say it is, but nobody ever comes back from it. How they can tell people about it, without having been there, is beyond my rationale.”
“Well, how do they know it’s there at all?” she questioned.
Aaron was quiet.
“I don’t like this drug,” she said. “It has too many negative side effects. It’s hard not to know who you are.” She frowned and looked down at her un-gloved hand. All the tiny levers clicked and whirred, pumping the thick black Digitalis into her blood.
Swish, swish, swish, it hummed along.
“Speaking of side effects,” Anne said, forcing a smile, “what are some of the others?
“For Digitalis?”
Anne nodded.
“Hallucinations, paranoia, paranoid delusions,” he paused, “You know, fun stuff like that.”
Anne stared at him with tears swelling up in her eyes.
“Don’t worry too much about it,” he said. “Everything has side effects. But sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes it helps. It’s kind of strange, though. If we take too much, we’ll die. We’ll be poisoned. If we take too little, we’ll suffocate. There’s nothing that doesn’t have some sort of side effect. Life has side effects, too. Some are good, you know. Happiness, love, warm socks. There are some negative ones of course: depression, love, family, wet socks. Sometimes the side effects are worse than the illness.”
“What made you so cynical?”
“Oh come on,” he said, “the world is half-full of pessimists. Ah, I don’t know when it happened. Seeing half the population die out, maybe? I don’t expect things will improve much in the near future, either,” Aaron replied, “If you always expect the worse, you’ll never be disappointed.”
“So, you don’t believe there is any such place?”
“There is no such place as Ra’s Patio, no. It’s a delusion. It just gives us a purpose, so we keep on. There’s not much else to do.”
“Then why do we keep going, risking our lives, and fighting to survive just to get to some place we’ve just been told about?”
“Because we have no choice, Anne. We have no choice at all.”
She sat in silence.
“What do you think Isaac’s hiding from us?” she asked after a moment or so.
“Something to do with his diary, I think,” Aaron replied. “He’s writing about something.”
Elijah started towards them with a large smile wrapped round his face. This usually meant something terrible was happening or about to happen. Aaron threw down his pack and started making the fire. Anne sat down and crossed her legs.
“Why do you think I’m such a bad guy?” Elijah asked. “You cross your legs whenever I get near you. Do you really think I’m that bad?”
She shook her head.
“We need to get a fire going,” Elijah said. “So, Aaron, unpack and go look for some firewood.”
“Yes sir,” said Aaron. He pulled his pots and pans out to make something for Isaac and Elijah. Anne and Aaron would have what was left when they were finished, if they left anything at all.
He finished unpacking and stood up.
“Now go get some wood,” Elijah said, turning to walk towards the other end of the clearing.
The passageway was beaten and muddied. Tangled branches dangled above their heads, throwing shadows of the limbs along the walk from one end to the other. At one end there was a passage leading to Roma’s warehouse; at the other end there was an old train track with empty carts along it. They had long been stripped of anything valuable.
“Why are we staying here?” Anne asked.
“Because,” Elijah said, “if they come up the train tracks, we’ll hear their carts on the gravel. If they come from the other side, they’ll have to get off the cart. They can’t go downhill on one of those things, it’d run into a tree or something.”
Anne nodded. Aaron was just standing there staring at Elijah.
“Aaron,” he said, “I swear, if you don’t get some firewood, and soon, I’m going to set you on fire. And if you think about it, being on fire probably isn’t much of a laugh.”
“Yes, sir,” said Aaron. He sighed, stood up, and walked through the tall grass at the edge of the clearing. In the tangled limbs and leaves along the ground, from under a small patch of leaves, Aaron saw a small cup. He fanned the limbs out of his face and walked over to it.
Then, under a small Styrofoam cup in the grass, he found something peculiar. The object was small, triangular, and red. It had writing imprinted on it: Dunlop Jazz III.
He had no idea what it was, but he stuck it down in the front pocket of his blue jeans. It might be worth something, he thought.
Moments later, Elijah sat beside the fire. For a while he doodled in the sand with a stick. Anne stared at him across the fire, watching the light cast shadows on his face. She strained to see his eyes but couldn’t. After a while the fire died down. Anne drifted off to a deep, calm sleep. This would be a dream Anne remembered for the rest of her life, even though it was brief. In it she stood at the threshold of a long white hall. A light swept back and forth through a grated window. At the end of the hall she saw her snow globe on a desk of long red oak.
She picked it up and stared down in it. All she saw was herself, staring back at her.
“Hello?” asked the face in the snow globe. She knew it was her; it was her reflection, but in a way she seemed different in the glass. Backwards, sort of.
“Who are you?” Anne asked the face in the glass, kneeling to the floor with it cupped in her satin gloves.
On each side of the hallway there were windowpanes. Empty, and she could see out of them. In one she saw Elijah sitting by the fire.
In the mirror opposite she saw a floating hummingbird. It appeared to be staring at her. She tried to ignore it. On an adjoining wall she saw ballerina shoes hanging from a nail.
A strange looking janitor pushed a broom past and waved at her. A small line of electricity pulsed along the floor in static lines of blue. The janitor seemed to be attending to it. He gave a goofy thumbs up and disappeared.
She looked down into the glass again. The face said, “I don’t see anything.” Someone resembling Elijah said, “There’s no face in there. That’s fucking stupid. It’s stupid. Stop with the nonsense. That’s crazy.”
Hearing this she rose and stared off through the woods. A few flashlights poked through the branches. A fine mist hung between the trees, cupping them with their slender grey fingers.
For the first time in her entire life, she felt as though she wasn’t really where she was. It’s a strange feeling. It was like waking up unable to move, feeling as though something, or someone, is sitting on your chest.
She felt like none of what had happened to her was real, and the face in the snow globe was somehow real. The snow globe wasn’t, she was sure. But the face in it was.
She jumped from her sleep and screamed.
Chapter 6
Herman’s Hummingbird

It was near dawn when the bustling came from the other room. Herman made his way across the room with tired and bloodshot eyes. I had fallen asleep in front of the TV. He walked past me and smiled.
“I thought you were going to leave,” he said.
“Why would you think that?” I asked, rubbing my eyes and sitting up.
“Because everybody does. But it’s almost morning, buddy, you should go home and let your folks know you’re alright. Come back around lunch time or so.”
“Alright then,” I asked, “I’ll see you later.”
I gathered my things and made for the door. Herman followed behind me
“Hey,” he shouted, “Just come around lunchtime. At twelve, or so, is that fine?”
I nodded.
“If anything happens and you can’t come, just call and let me know so I won’t be worried about you.”
I nodded again and said goodbye. By the time I crossed the car door bridge, Herman was alone in his dark bedroom. For an hour or so, he laid there staring at the ceiling. Watching as the light of passing cars crawled across the ceiling and out the window.
In order to get himself into a routine he set his alarm clock for eight. Herman never dreamed, or did but didn’t remember. He pretended he dreamed. He made up stories to his friends about his dreams. He probably did this just so people would talk to him or listen to him, I thought. Every night he went to sleep and forgot his routine. Every morning he hit snooze and slept until someone called or showed up. There was really no point, he thought, in getting up if no one is going to call or come by.
Just shy of noon, the phone rang, waking him from a restless sleep of tossing and turning. Jumping to his feet, Herman ran into the kitchen and snatched the phone from the receiver.
“Yello? This is Herman,” he said. He was obviously excited. Static.
He stayed there for a minute frozen, with his old phone to his ear. For thirty minutes or so he repeated his “yello” and “who is this?” No answer. No Hank. Just more unfriendly static.
“Hank?” he asked, “Is that you? I been tryin’ to get in touch with you to see if you wanted to go pick with some folk from Union later this week. We used to play with them at the Handle Bar, you remember that right?”
The static didn’t seem to remember anything. Herman put the phone down and stared at it for a bit. The globe beside the phone shook when he slammed it again, and again. His hand still gripped the plastic handle.
He dialed my number next. No answer. He dialed it again. No answer again, except for the answering machine. He decided to leave a message: “Thomas,” he said, “I was just calling to make sure you ain’t forgot about me. But I guess you’re sleeping now, or probably playing a bit, so I’ll see you around lunchtime. I hope you didn’t forget, because there’s something I’d like to show you today, it’s a record of…” The tape was full and cut off. He slammed the phone down on the receiver and stood for a minute grasping it. Finally he let go of the phone walked to the fridge.
It was empty as usual except for the orange juice, lettuce, and other small items. After feeding his hummingbird, which stayed on his back porch in a small, wooden cage he’d made for him, he fixed a tall glass of orange juice, and walked into his workroom.
Sitting down in front of his old typewriter, he looked over the last few pages of the story. Most of it came across and he acknowledged it with a vague sense of recognition.
After reading over it a few times, he found one anachronism: the dream of the janitor, Anne’s dream, he didn’t remember at all.
I showed up at dinnertime, knocked three times, and the door burst open as per usual, as though he was waiting just behind the door. The static of the TV hissed and crackled.
“I thought you’d forgot me,” he said, “I left a message on your answering machine though, I hope your grandfather ain’t mad about it being so long.”
“Probably not,” I said, “He is dead, after all. Answering machines are the least of his worries.”
Herman forced a nervous little laugh and gestured to the television.
“What’re you watching?” I asked, sitting my guitar case down beside an overturned coffee tin full of cigarette butts and snuff.
“Oh, this was recorded when I was ‘bout your age. I was playing piano and some pals of mine were just jamming.”
There was nothing on the television but static. I’d heard the man was crazy, but
I wasn’t going to bring it up in front of him. I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings or anything. Insane people have feelings too. Probably more than someone of a stable mind.
“Comment allez-vous?” he asked in his distinct, high pitched redneck drawl.
“You’re trying to learn French?” I asked, shocked.
“Last night I called a friend of mine and had him look up some French words and phrases for me. That’s just the only one I remember. I don’t even know what it means.”
“How are you,” I said, “I think that’s what it means.”
He looked ashamed for a minute. His tired eyes were focused on nothing in particular. More like he was seeing everything but not really looking at anything. The house was poorly lit. It always was. His windows had long ago been covered by trash bags. A small, arching lamp in the corner didn’t give off much light. Some of the sun had spilled in from a window in the living room, stopping just shy of his aged couch. There was a strange glimmer on the coffee tin that distracted me for a moment. It was a strange bluish color. I ignored it.
“Want to play a bit today, buddy?” he asked, looking at me with his tired, wrinkle-laying eyes. I didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he seemed terribly sad about something.
I blanked for a moment, staring at the static on the television.
“Yeah, I told you I’d come by. I stopped by Sandy’s Grill up-town and brought us some sandwiches.”
His eyes lit up.
“What’d you get?” he asked excitedly, “How did you get money? You don’t work.”
“Bacon, lettuce, and tomato. BLT’s. Just for you,” I said, digging in the plastic bag, “And, I have other ways of making money.”
“Thank you,” he said, “Thanks a lot, buddy. I been feelin’ bad today, real bad. I’m out of my medicine, and I ain’t got the money to get it filled ‘til the first. That’s when I get my check.”
I was silent for a minute. He finished his sandwich and stood up, motioning for me.
“You going to eat?” he asked.
“I ate earlier,” I said, lying to him. I only had enough money to get his food and a pack of cigarettes. What money I had was stolen from my brother anyway. I’m not proud.
“Come here,” he said and gestured towards the room leading out of his kitchen onto his back porch.
He led me through his kitchen and out the back door. There was a patio closed in by a screen. In the center there was a small birdhouse sitting on an old chest. Beside it was a flickering candle.
“Come here,” he said.
The same Xantus hummingbird that stared at me the day before floated out and sat on his nose. His eyes lit up.
“His name is Mike,” he said and smiled widely, “I don’t remember when I found him or how, but he showed up. I made him a little house. It’s nice isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s really nice,” I said. Honestly, he’d done an exceptional job on the house. I couldn’t imagine him making it with his hands shaking as they do.
“I’m going to take care of him,” he said, rubbing his little head gently, “until whenever he wants to leave.”
I smiled uneasily. Something struck me as odd. Not less than two weeks prior, I wrote a small essay on the Xantus hummingbirds. They had fascinated me entirely. But, another thing I knew; Xantus never showed up in South Carolina. Even the hummingbirds hate this place. A damn shame.
“I can get him some feed,” I said as the bird flew off his nose and back into his small house, “You know, that red stuff that my grandma used to put out for birds in the summer.”
“That’d be real nice,” Herman said, “Real nice, buddy.”
His voice was strained and wistful. All of the color and animation had flushed from his face. His hyper, on edge, rambling had died completely. Instead of going into conversation, he nodded. Instead of saying something, he shrugged lifelessly.
In the other room, his phone rang again. He walked to it with quiet steps, looking down as he walked.
“Yello?” he said quietly, “This is Herman.”
“I know you,” he said into the phone, “Yes, he’s with me now. Yes. Why can’t you tell me? I’ll tell him for you. Alright buddy, when you comin’ by? Sounds good. What? Oh, yes. He brought his guitar I think. You can play together. Maybe
I’ll get out my dobro. Ha-ha, alright buddy. See you when you get here. How long do you think it’ll be? Good good, bye bye.”
He hung up and looked at me from the other room. Some of the color had returned to his face, but it still looked as though he didn’t want to be awake at all. Neither did I, really. Things had been going great for me too. Then I woke up. It has all been downhill since then.
“She’s going to come and stay while her parents are in Spartanburg. I’ll get out my dobro and we can play for a while, I guess.”
He ran off into the other room and threw on one of his cleaner shirts.
Shit, I thought, Elizabeth was far more talented than I was. Besides that, the walk from my house to his was too long for me. The walk from my house to Herman’s really wasn’t that far. At the end of the turn-around, at the end of his road, there was a small bit of trees and a clearing through it. In the clearing was a bridge some friends of mine made out of an old car door. There had always been a straight, cleared way through the middle of the woods. Beside the bridge there was a tall streetlight that never went off.
It was half past one when Elizabeth knocked on the door. How she managed to make it from her dad’s minivan to the haphazard front door always amazed me.
She came in smiling. Carefully dodging all the records, picture albums, and poster filled boxes strewn about the floor.
She sat down, accepting a glass of orange juice from Herman, and folded her violin case over her lap.
“How’s the story coming along?” she asked.
“Good,” he said, “I guess. Sometimes I have trouble remembering what I’ve written. And the characters, sometimes, seem to end up somewhere I don’t remember them being at when I wrote it.”
“You do have Alzheimer’s, right?” asked Elizabeth warmly.
“Yeah, I do. And I don’t have my medicine now. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get it filled.”
“What doesn’t seem right?” I asked.
“I don’t remember writing some of this,” he responded, “There’s something in here about a janitor, and I know I didn’t write it.”
Elizabeth walked into the other room to get a refill of her orange juice. She stopped by the snow globe in the hall. The snow inside it drifted as though someone had just shaken it.
She looked down in it and smiled.
“Hello,” she said to the lively globe, and walked back into the other room.
A golden moth drifted by her in the hall, behind it sails of silver and gold. It’s wings appeared as paper in the hall, but the walls glowed as it drifted by. Elizabeth screamed. Herman jumped to his feet and ran into the other room.
“What? What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Look,” she pointed to the globe, “There’s a moth in the snow globe. How did it get in there?”
“There’s no way,” I said, “That’s not possible. The laws of physics don’t take time off. And if you break the laws of physics, you can’t plead insanity.”
“Then what is that?” she asked me.
On the other side of the wall there were hushed voices. I leaned against the wall to listen to the two men talking rapidly.
“You let it get away,” one said to the other, “We’re going to get fired if we don’t find it. You know what happens when the wheel breaks down.”
As sudden as the sound arose the conversation lapsed to silence and the rapid voices disappeared.
I stepped into the room and saw what made her scream. Somehow the golden moth had got inside the globe. It glowed as though it breathed, swelling up and getting dull, then swelling up again in brilliant strands of gold and silver. The globe went dim and swelled again, pulsing like a beating heart. We stood together staring, huddled around the light like a warm fire. The golden glow lit the drab, run down surroundings of Herman’s cramped apartment.
I’ve seen crazy things in my life. I’ve heard crazy stories. In Memoirs of my
Nervous Illness, Daniel Paul Schreber described, quite lucidly, the effects of a serious psychosis. The things that crept into his mind were real to him. They were physical, capable, and intending upon some hidden goal. The birds that talked to him in the garden were as real as any of the improvised men that came to him by miracle, interacted with him only by God’s specific instruction, and then – on the other side of the door – disappeared. They were phantoms. Improvised, created by miracle specifically for him. Thwapt, thwapt, thwapt.
Many people will more than likely file what is to follow in the same category as Schreber’s grim account dispatched from the far side of madness in his Memoirs. Thankfully, however, I won’t be turned into a woman.
This is what I thought of when I looked into the globe. The moth was real, not just to me, to all of us. There was no doubt that the globe was glowing, breathing a golden hue and shining in Elizabeth’s trembling hands. She held the globe for a minute, staring at it in awe.
“Don’t touch it,” Herman said and took it from her. He hastened to set it back on the stand beside the phone. “Don’t touch it,” he repeated, “Go home. Just go home.”
A golden moth was trapped in a snow globe, and this man was asking us to leave? This I would happily oblige him. Those days were long gone.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to write for a while,” he responded, “Put a cloth over that globe before you go.”
“I’m going to stay with you,” said Elizabeth. She looked a bit more composed now.
“No, you have to go,“ he tried, but she interrupted him.
“Go home, Thomas,” she said to me, “I’ll take care of him. I’ll call you tomorrow; can I have your number?”
“Sure,” I said, and gave her the number.
“What time?” she asked, walking me to the door. Herman had ran off to the back of his house to work at his typewriter.
“I have to work tomorrow,” I said, “Call me after twelve.” She laughed a bit and closed the door behind me.
In front of the door on the old welcome mat was a bucket of soapy water. An old mop was hanging out of it.
Chapter 7
Valley of the Moths

“What did you hear?” asked Isaac, folding up his diary. Elijah had written lots of stories on his farm before he lost his mother, when he slept in the pastures of their farm.
“’Hello’,” said Anne, “that’s all I heard. I was asleep, I think. I’m not even sure what I was doing. There was someone on the other side of the globe.”
“Do you know that screaming like that will attract Searcher’s? Do you know what they’ll do if they find you?” Elijah shouted, “Next time, I’ll let them take you. Understand?”
Anne shook her head. Elijah sighed and relented.
“Where are we, exactly?” he asked, looking around. None of the surroundings seemed to be familiar.
“I feel really strange,” he said.
“So do I,” Anne agreed.
“Look,” said Aaron, holding the red, triangular object in his hand.
“What’s that?” Elijah asked, taking it.
“I’m not sure. I found it under a cup,” he gestured, “over there in the clearing.”
“I don’t know why it’d matter,” Isaac said, “but, go get it. I want you to take it with us.”
Aaron rushed over and scooped it up. Under it was a small and narrow hole that pulsed with a breathing sort of golden glow. He knew he was probably hallucinating because of the Digitalis, so he shoved the cup down in his pocket and ran back over to Elijah and Isaac as they mounted their tired horses. They were remarkable considering their age and mileage.
“Do you have the cup?” Isaac asked, looking down at Aaron as he walked up beside him. Anne trailed a bit behind. She was looking down as she walked, with her hands behind her back.
“Are you alright, sir?” asked Aaron.
“What do you mean?” asked Isaac strangely.
“Your eyes,” said Aaron, “have changed colors. I could’ve sworn they were brown.”
“Hand me your globe,” Isaac called over to Anne, stopping his strong, black horse. She dug it out of her trunk and rushed over. He reached down and took it from her, cradling it with his hands. His eyes lit up when he held it. Inside it was a golden glow.
“What the hell is that?” asked Elijah, galloping up beside Isaac.
“It’s a moth,” said Anne, “It’s trapped in the snow globe. I’ve never seen a golden moth before.”
“Well, that’s not really the problem right now,” Isaac said, “How did it get inside the glass to begin with? That really doesn’t seem possible. Here, take this,” he handed her the globe, “and put it up. We’ll look at it when we leave Roma’s and have refilled. We’re all low; we’re probably hallucinating. It’s not a big deal. We’ll fill back up and everything will be fine again.”
Isaac got off his horse to walk. A moment later Elijah did the same and followed him.
Anne put the snow globe in her trunk and snapped it shut. They emerged from the clearing, looking at a long row of houses that lay in ruin. At the end of the long passageway they saw Roma’s.
Elijah ran up beside Isaac and whispered as they walked towards the tiny warehouse.
“Do you feel, how do you say, strange?” he asked, “I feel like I’m being controlled by something. Is it the Digitalis? Is it controlling us?”
Isaac shrugged.
“It’s strange,” Elijah went on, “I’m being controlled by something and I’m not even married.”
“I swear to God, Elijah,” Anne yelled out from far behind, “if you don’t stop with the sexist bullshit, I’ll cut your fucking throat!” Anne dropped to the ground.
Elijah stared at her as she collapsed. He knew Anne, and also knew that Anne would never shout at him. So, he laughed it off.
“Did you see that, man?” Elijah asked Isaac, “She was talking to me like she was a real person for a minute and not just some mute idiot. A real, loudmouthed, opinionated little bitch. Just as I like them.”
He turned around to look at her with a smile on his face. She had climbed to her feet and was walking along as though nothing had happened. Elijah blinked and focused on her feet. The torn up shoes she normally wore seemed to have changed.
Roma’s was just over the hill, so they went onward in silence. Aaron was bringing up the rear, looking out for the Searcher’s, the Mantis Men that crawled like insects over the earth. Like insects sucking the blood out of the wandering peoples.
Aaron looked around in confusion; he was sure something was wrong or missing. Though he couldn’t really be sure. None of them could. The sky was it’s forever grey half-night, and the purple ghost of the sun rested atop a tangle of snake-like clouds. It was easy for someone to get lost or go missing since the dusk never relented into night, and the night never passed into dawn in the morning. Far off across the hills, past the mountains of toothbrushes and shaving cream, they heard the electric gargling of the megaphones the Mantis Men carried through the woods.
They would take them all off, they knew. If Anne couldn’t persuade them not to haul them off to the far side of the Rivers, Elijah would be placed in a awkward situation: he’d either have to kill them or risk losing two servants. Knowing Elijah, he’d probably kill them and giggle about it.
There were theories that were coughed up around the Caravanserai shops, where people drifted by without much to say: some believed that they didn’t get thrown into the yawning river, but went somewhere else entirely.
They made their way through a small patch of trees. In the middle was a small bridge and not too far from it was a streetlight. It was snowing again and heavily, as if, Elijah thought looking upward, they were trapped inside a snow globe too.
Old Sam was sitting out in front of Roma’s, smoking his pipe and laughing like he always did. Sam was always out front in his rocking chair telling stories. He was crazy, but entertaining; so he was tolerated.
Not too long ago, the small warehouse had been an empty lot. Full of the ghosts of mill workers and weavers. Roma and his three brothers came from the Upper Territories and rebuilt it. Quickly it became a center of trading and small market place.
There was a long, circling staircase that wrapped around the front, beside it on opposite sides were two ramps leading up to the main entrance. Small groups of people were outside sleeping around small fires, some were talking and trading out front.
Roma pushed the beads back from the main door with his hands up, laughing and smiling.
“Elijah, you crazed fuck, what brings you back so soon? Thought you were casing those houses by the four Piles?”
“We were,” Elijah said and offered his hand, “Most of the houses were stripped. There was one place, though, where they had a lot of pots and pans, condensed foods. Chicken broth… When we got there, there were a bunch of other people practically crawling over the roofs. But, I believe we have enough here,” he threw his burlap sack to the hardwood floor, “to at least get a double, or maybe even two. It’ll be a while before we get to the River, and we don’t know what the ferry man will want to take us across it. Coins, maybe. If we can find any.”
“None here,” Roma said.
“Yeah, I figured as much. Regardless, we’d like to stock up on as much now as possible.”
“You goin’ through the carnival grounds, yeah? That place in ruin, Elijah. People don’t go through there anymore. You do best to go all the way ‘round, there’s a clearing that my brothers made. You gonna want to throw way one of your servants, maybe? I can get you two pumps for a woman, and you don’t need to be crossin’ the River with tail on the boat. Ferry man dump you off and take her back to his place. Ha-ha, you’re going to take the tunnel through the mills after you leave here, right?”
Elijah nodded.
“Be careful in there, seriously,” Roma said in his ebony accent, “People live in there. They lost their minds down in the mills, you know. They come here and say they hear things all the time down there. But, of course, people are insane. Insane, man.”
“Let’s go back to your cellar,” said Elijah, throwing the bag off his shoulder, motioning for Isaac.
“Let’s go,” Roma beamed, “I have exactly what you’ve come for.”
Aaron tied the horses up, swearing and cursing. Elijah and Isaac disappeared into the beads that hung in the front door.
“I didn’t want Elijah to take this before I got to show you,” Aaron said, “I’m surprised he gave it back, actually. But look what I found under that cup.”
“What is it?” Anne asked, staring down at it as Aaron cupped it in his hands.
“I don’t know what it is,” Aaron said, “but it seems … strange, doesn’t it? Pick it up.”
Anne took it in her gloved, slender fingers and held it up to the grayish sun that rolled around the sky. The pale grey oval pulsed behind a swarm of bulbous thunderclouds. In the lower parts of the atmosphere, an electric storm was building.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m even touching it. It’s like it’s not here at all.”
“Exactly,” Aaron replied, taking it into his hand again. He put it down in his pocket and sat down, looking at all the people pouring in and out of Roma’s with bags thrown over their shoulders. Their full vials of Digitalis shined brightly. The cylindrical vials in their hands pulsed and whirred like teakettles.
“I’ve got a book I want to show you,” Anne said, “It’s in my trunk. The other one is ruined, but this one survived somehow. I’ve been carrying it around a long, long time. I don’t really know why. It’s like I have to. I tried to leave it under that streetlight while Isaac and Elijah were casing that road, but it showed up in my trunk again today. Have a look.”
As Anne tried to open the trunk she heard the sound of shattering glass.
“What was that?” Aaron asked. He stopped in his place and his face went pale. Anne groped around the trunk for her snow globe but found only shards of broken glass. From the trunk a golden moth fluttered out and up into the low- hanging clouds. She watched it until it fled out of sight.
A group of uniformed men carrying mops and brooms chased after the moth yelling obscenities at it. Their uniforms were bright blue and tidy, brighter than anything else in the world it seemed, and yellow gloves hung from their back pockets.
She dug around a bit inside the trunk, taking out her books and shards of glass. And in one she saw a brilliant blue. She took it into her hands and cupped it, staring down into it.
In it she saw a reflection of herself and inside the glass her reflection screamed.
“Where am I?” she asked her crying reflection, “Who are you?” Aaron knelt beside her as her reflection started speaking to her.

Elijah, with Isaac close behind him, made his way through the lantern lit corridors of Roma’s warehouse, disappearing finally into a beaded door round back.
“Isaac,” said Roma, “and Elijah, you’re the man with the animal fetish, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he laughed, “Why am I here?”
“I think that is something we’d all like to know,” said a man behind Roma’s cluttered desk. The floor was streaked with grease and lined with watermelon seeds. A clock on the wall had stopped at fifteen after ten; it’s small, silver hand continued ticking – going nowhere.
“Still having them dreams, Elijah?” said a shadowy figure hanging in the back cleaning a gun.
“Wait,” said Isaac butting in, “You always told me you never dreamed.”
“Everybody dreams in different ways. Some with words and fantasies, others with faces.”
“Tell me about it, then,” prodded Isaac, suddenly showing some sort of interest after days of silent nodding and meek gesturing.
“It starts out the same every time,” Elijah started, thumbing at his temples with his index finger, “I wake up in the dark on our farm again and I’m sweating. Outside in one of the pastures I hear the goats running round, being goats, and I have the same pressing feeling that nothing is right. It’s like I’m standing still but being pushed somewhere anyway. Do you ever get that feeling? It’s like I’m literally being shoved on through the dark.
“Something has taken control of me somehow and is making me do shit I don’t want to do. I hear these thoughts in my head that aren’t mine, when I’m awake too, that make me do things I would never do. Not too long ago, I woke up during the middle of the night. Someone was talking in a strange voice, so I walked out into the woods by the Piles. There was a sparrow on the ground. Its little legs sticking out, kicking. The bird wasn’t dead, I don’t think. Then something took control over me, absolute control. And I stomped the bird. Now I see it everywhere, even when I’m awake. As for the dream, it always ends the same.
“Something takes me and throws me on a floor. I’m on my knees in front of some giant podium. There’s a woman standing behind it looking down at me from behind her glasses. This podium is really tall. Fucking giant podium, man. She doesn’t say anything at first; she just stares down at me. Scowling like a man just elbowed her in the throat. It’s maddening. There’s a witness stand to her side, and beside it there’s a combination lock written in a foreign language. There’s never a witness, but the juror’s stand is full of people. Well, things I assume used to be people. They’re not people, actually. They’re skeletons wrapped in skin and business suits. Every time I talk they roll their heads back and click their tongues. It’s this horrible clicking sound. They make it when they laugh.
“I think the judge is dead, too. She’s kind of spry for a dead bitch, though. And I’m scared to talk because they laugh every time and the words leave me. They just roll their heads back and make that stupid ass clicking sound. Their teeth clicking together, I think it is. It’s the same sort of clicking sounds the usual hand implants make. Like this one,” he took the glove off his left hand, stretching out his long, slender fingers. In the center of his palm the tiny vial sat suspended by welded metal.
“Sometimes the juror’s stand is occupied. Sometimes it’s a relative, a lover, and sometimes it’s someone I’ve killed or fucked or both. They don’t say a word; they just point at me. And the judge, the high judge, slaps down on her gavel and I wake up every time.”
“Are you guilty?” Roma asked with his typical toothy grin. His skin was dark and he wore a pair of faded jeans and no t-shirt. He was bald and had no eyebrows; he had been born without them.
“Guilty?” asked Elijah, “Guilty of what? Killing a bird? The entire species is pretty much extinct, why should I worry about sparing it the suffering? Guilty of what?”
“That’s up to you, Elijah,” pressed Roma, “What are you guilty of?”
Roma stood up and walked over behind his desk and opened a drawer. After digging through it for a minute, he brought out of it a moldy cigar box lined with cotton, and full of long, slender vials of Digitalis. Isaac dug in Elijah’s bag.
“Well, nothing,” Elijah said, staring down at the floor, “I don’t believe I’m guilty of anything. But,” he added, “that’s just my opinion.”
“Nothing wrong with opinions. I love opinions; they can be debated, fought over, killed over. Or worse, agreed with.”
He gave his usual hmph-hmph-hmph chuckle and knelt beside Isaac. He brought from the bag the watch they’d taken from the man in the road.
“Just a watch?” Roma asked.
“It’s broken, too. Stopped at fifteen after ten, but it’s just as valuable. Who has time to worry about time anymore?”
“We’ve got some chicken broth, too!” Elijah shouted and then roared with laughter.
“Fuck you,” Roma said with a smile, “Who wants chicken flavored liquid?”
“That’s exactly what I said.”
“What else you got in your bag old man?” Roma asked. He glared at Isaac.
“Pots and pans mostly, silverware. A couple of pistols, nothing worth much,” Isaac replied.
“I’m glad somebody still picks up that kind of shit. That’s all people used to bring, you see. Always pots and pans and silverware, nothing else. I never gave much for them, you know. Some canned foods, sleeping bags, maybe even half a vial or some firewood. But since I stopped giving out shit for it, people stopped bringing it in. So I started to need it more than ever now that nobody brings it in. Say you give me what you’ve got in your bag, and I’ll give you four vials. That’s two a piece. Good, good? Yes, good.”
Roma walked swiftly to the door.
“Oh, I’ve got what you’ve been asking for Elijah,” he said.
“Yeah? Get the stuff from Sarah, Isaac, and meet me outside. Four vials, some bread, and anything, anything but chicken broth. I’d rather have fried monkey’s asshole than that.”
Isaac gathered his stuff and headed outside through the tangle of shelved isles and piles of metal. People in torn and tattered clothing thronged around the tables, observing things and picking things apart. Looking for anything they might need along the way.
Isaac stopped at the front porch in a small crowd to listen to Old Sam and his stories. Old Sam knew the answer to everything. He had his own personal definition for everything and people loved to gather together around him on Roma’s front porch.
“What’s a lizard?” a man from the crowd called out.
“A lazy snake,” responded Sam.
“Life?” called another.
“The better of two evils, a sexually transmitted disease!”
“Tell us how things used to be,” Isaac said quietly.
“The sun used to shine all the time. Even at nighttime, once or twice up in Alaska. Alaska, they don’t have Alaska anymore, but it used to be where the Northern territories are now. And planes, big metal birds, used to crawl through the air. And the air wasn’t as stuffy or thin in those days either. Nobody had to have those implants in their hands or in their foreheads or wear those gaudy masks those Mantis Men wear. They had things that were similar, but they called it by different names. Everything was called different things in those days, though. It was like a different, alternate reality.”
“What about Ra’s Patio?” Aaron called from the crowd.
“That’s a tough one,” Sam conceded, “but, I’m sure it has something to do with seraphim and tacky singing.”

Elijah followed Roma into the back storage freezer where he hung what little meat that could be found. He followed him through the long isles of picnic tables covered in canned goods and strange electronic devices that didn’t work. There was no power, but it was reserved for special deals for special cases. They made their way to a cloth covered table pushed against the back wall.
Roma knelt on one knee and brought something from the bottom shelf. To Elijah it looked like some eccentric sort of box that had long been bored of being a regular box and decided to gussy himself up a spot.
It had a smooth grey surface. Two numbered dials were lined up and down the side.
“It’s magic as you said,” Roma said, “A talking box. Nobody knows what it’s for, but you can ask it questions. Sometimes it’ll even answer for you; it come on late at night and start talkin’ bout everything you can imagine. And it’s kind of neat to dick around with when you’re bored. Some people even say it’s a prophet, and that some of the things it says come true. You got to look close, real close, and you see it. It’s good as currency, too, if you don’t feel like lugging it around in that bag of yours. Keep it near you though; we’ve lost a lot of people lately. Maybe you can find out why from this.”
“Yeah,” Elijah said numbly, “there’ve been some more disappearances on the other side of the Piles.”
“I woke up the other night, you know I won’t lie to you, and I went into my brother’s room and he was gone. His bed was made, which is something he’d never do, and on his pillow was a flower. One flower by itself.”
“Just a flower?” asked Elijah curiously, rubbing at his temples.
“Yes, just a flower.”
“They have no idea where they’re going. Are they being taken off during the night to the Rivers? Are they being taken with their toothbrushes and shaving cream and shot out in the woods? Nobody has any idea where these people are going.”
“Elijah, brother,” Roma said, putting a hand on his shoulder, “nobody has any idea where they’re going, much less where anyone else is going. It’s hard to wake up with a flower on the pillow where a friend used to be. They say you can see their faces in the Rivers when you cross.”
“Yes,” agreed Elijah, “yes, it is.”
Elijah carried the box out in his burlap sack. He turned around and looked at Roma, who stood staring off through the darkening woods through a small window. Elijah kissed his own hand, turned it, and put it on Roma’s forehead. He walked out quickly. A moment later he stood beside Isaac in the small crowd of raucous shouting.
Then he heard an odd buzzing noise. Like the blaring of a stereo speaker. It was like the slow hum of a far off record player with a towel on it, pouring through cracks far off and disjointed. The strange sensation washed over him briefly and the sounds of far off people filtered in:
“I haven’t seen it,” said one to the other in an old man’s voice.
“They won’t die until later on,” said another, “That’s probably in book II.”
And in the far reaches of his mind he saw an image: Anne was on the ground by her snow globe and it was cracked, and before her in a tall, grassy corridor, was an endless valley of golden moths. A man stood engulfed in the swarming torrent made of gold.
“I didn’t write this,” the same far off voice intoned, “but I like it.”
For a while they went on, knocking about inside his head. He didn’t know what was being said, or if anything was being said at all. What he did know was that he had four vials now, enough for him to have two and Isaac to have two. Hopefully the feeling would go away once he refilled. Roma had disappeared around back to the nursery. For a small deposit, the kids could be hooked up to a life support machine round back while their parents went off to Ra’s Patio: stomping of to Heaven in its glory with a burlap sack thrown round their back.
Off in the woods not far away, something appeared out in the dark. It was closely seven feet in height.
“Elijah,” Isaac shouted, drawing him from his trance, “Come look at this.”
Aaron untied the horses and Elijah ran off into the woods. Isaac was standing right beside it, rubbing his hands down the side of its smooth surface.
“What is it?” Elijah asked.
“I think it’s a phone booth,” Isaac replied, “Got any change?”

Book 2
Chapter 1
Under the Coffee Tin

Elizabeth met me at the front door when I showed up the next day. Her eyes were dark from lack of sleep, and her hair was disheveled. She approached me with a nervous, blank look in her eyes.
“Hey, don’t go wake him up,” she said, “I’m not finished yet.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. She closed the door behind her softly, and stepped out. She looked around nervously, rubbing one arm with the other.
“He’s going to kill those characters in his book,” she whispered.
“So?” I questioned, “They’re just characters. They’re not real.”
“They are now,” she said in a low, low voice, “Somehow, they’ve become real. They know they’re characters.”
“How do you suppose that happened?”
“I was in the bathroom washing my face,” she began, “and I heard him in the other room. He was just typing away, peck-peck, you know. Then it stopped, and
I didn’t hear him anymore. Then it started again for a minute or so, and I heard him tear away a sheet of paper and ball it up. So I froze, curious as to what he was doing or trying to do, and I heard him type again. As soon as he stopped typing,” she paused for a moment, “the mirror in the bathroom shattered, and the snow globe shattered too. I have a piece of the glass; you can see them in it. You can see Herman’s characters faces. One of them looks like me; one of them looks like you; one of them looks slightly like Herman but has all of his hair. And nobody knows who the other one is, but everybody kind of ignores him anyway.”
“There’s no face in there. That’s fucking stupid. It’s stupid. Stop with the nonsense. That’s crazy. How can you see it? You’re fucking blind, and you’re fucking stupid if you think I’m going to believe this shit.”
She brought from her jacket a small piece of glass and handed it to me. I looked down into it. Nothing there except my face.
“Tap it,” she said, “so they’ll know you’re there.”
I tapped the glass three times and held it up, looked again.
“Hello?” a voice said from inside the glass, “Where am I? Who are you?”
“Hello,” I said, “Who are you?” I was talking to a piece of glass. Life’s pretty full, you know.
The shard of glass was cloudy and had depth in it; the image on it didn’t look like a flat surface, but curved and turned, reflecting light in different directions. It was arched and deep, and in it there was a vast and barren waste land. Above them grey clouds lurked, violent with electricity. The sun was blanketed by thick clouds. People were sitting around digging in their mechanical looking hands with screwdrivers. Some people were sitting in a patch of trees, eating a raw and starving dog. It was like I was looking at an entire world. A young girl that looked like Elizabeth swam up on the screen and looked at me. She turned her head to the side.
“Elijah?” she asked strangely, her voice was low and sweet.
“No,” I said, and my hands were shaking, “I’m not Elijah.”
“But you look just like him,” she said, “You do.”
There were two horses tied to a stump and beside them stood a young man looking down into a Styrofoam cup. Lots of homeless, dirty, animal looking people had gathered around the front of a sort of warehouse. They were yelling and laughing, and a few people were scattering as low hanging clouds pulsed above with forewarnings of a coming storm.
The moment was too surreal to take seriously, and being as how I’ve been locked up for hallucinations in the past, I didn’t much consider it real.
“I found out what he’s going to do to them,” she said, taking the glass, “He’s got them looking for some place. They’re fine, ostensibly, but they all rely on some sort of synthetic, exaggerated form of Digitalis.”
“Digitalis?” I asked, barely hiding my curiosity, “What’s that?”
“Digitalis is a drug,” she began, “or Digitalis purpurea, containing cardiac glycosides. It’s used to treat heart conditions.”
“Well, how do you know that, Dr. Quinn?”
“My mother works in pharmaceuticals,” she responded, looking at me angrily, “but that’s not really the point.”
“Then get to it.”
“He’s got them looking for a place called Ra’s Patio. None of them even know if it’s real or not, but he makes them look for it anyway. But he’s always forgetting where he puts them, so they start over, lose track of clothes, arms, it’s really quite a bother for them. So, I’ve decided to find out what he intends to do with them, and try to help them.”
“How do you expect to do that?”
“In the story, they just left a little market type place. They’re addicted to Digitalis now and need it to live. They’ll do anything for it. Anything. They’ll kill, steal, rape, anything: but he made them that way. He has created an entire world of disappearing people.”
“Anything for it?” I asked.
“Gargle sperm?”
“You are one of the most vulgar men I’ve ever met.”
“Thanks. But answer the question!”
“Yes what?”
“Yes, they’d gargle sperm.”
“Ew!” I shouted, “You’re one nasty bitch!”
She damn near slapped my face off. I forced a laugh and she gathered her composure. Things were going well.
“So, their God has Alzheimer’s?” I smirked.
Thankfully, she ignored that completely. Thankfully she didn’t hit me again.
“He’s really not sure where they’re going now, but things have been strange from the beginning, Thomas.”
“Like what?”
“You lost your guitar pick,” she said.
“Amazing!” I said sarcastically, “a teenage guitarist loses a guitar pick?
Somebody call Sherlock Holmes! What a fucking mystery.”
“A character in the story has it.”
I stared at her dumbly. I wrote this off as a hallucination, or national insanity like I did with the Boy Band Epidemic of the late nineties.
“How’s that possible?”
“Come in,” she said and smiled, “come in. I’ll show you.”
If there was one thing I couldn’t stand, it was excitement.

The air condition was whirring in the corner when I stepped over a pile of guitar magazines, following Elizabeth into Herman’s front room.
She pointed at the ground.
“What am I looking at?” I asked. “It’s dirty, so?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Do you see that coffee tin?”
“Pick it up.”
I did as I was told and picked up the dank, snuff-filled coffee tin. Under it was my preferred guitar pick: a red Dunlop Jazz III.
“So, you found it under the coffee tin, that doesn’t prove anything,” I said, taking it into my hands, looking it over.
“I’ve changed his story,” she said, as I stood back upright, “I’ve written in a way for them to contact us, more directly.”
“What’s that? By email?”
“A phone booth.”
“A phone booth? That’s silly. What if they don’t have any change?”
“I’ll give them change, of course. Put some under the tin.”
“Why a phone booth? Why not something a little more compact? It’s hard to drag around a phone booth, isn’t it?”
“I read over a brief bit of his story. It was wordy, a bit dramatic, but promising. And I thought it would be kind of interesting. They wanted me to prove to them that we could contact them. You can tell he has Alzheimer’s: the story is inconsistent in a few parts; some plotlines go nowhere, and some things are forgotten about entirely. It’s interesting, though. Critics would never like it, of course, because nobody wants to read a book by an author unless they’ve read him before or heard he was good.”
“Nothing quite as fun as mocking something someone puts their livelihood into.”
Interesting, it was.
Herman was in the house reading over the last bit of his manuscript, shaking his head.
“I didn’t write this,” he said, “but it’s good.”
He looked around nervously as though expecting someone at the back door.
“I didn’t write this,” he said again, “but its good.”

I sat down beside Elizabeth on Herman’s couch. She had a piece of his story sprawled out across a notebook. We heard him fidgeting around in the other room.
“Go give him one of these,” I said, taking a pill out of my pocket, “It’ll help him sleep.”
“He’ll never take it. He hates taking medicine enough as it is. He hates feeling like he depends on it.”
“Put it in his orange juice.”
“Where did you get that from?”
“I take sleeping pills,” I told her, being absolutely honest, “They’re by prescription, of course. I’m not breaking any laws.”
“Alright,” she said and put down the papers. She felt her way towards the other room and stopped by the table in the kitchen. She looked over at the black sheet, resting like a glove over the glowing snow globe.
After a minute she more than likely talked herself into believing she was imagining it. Just as I was doing in the living room.
She took it to him in his bedroom and sat it down beside his desk. He jumped when she walked into the room.
“It’s ok,” she said, “Calm down and drink this.”
“What is it?” he questioned, hands on top of his head. His face was drenched in sweat.
“its orange juice,” she said sweetly, putting an arm around his shoulder, “Just drink it and try to relax.”
He did as she said and he was asleep within five minutes. She came back into the room with a stack of papers and his typewriter.
“What was it that he wrote that made the mirror shatter? As you say, anyway, I don’t really believe it. ”
“Go into the bathroom then,” she said. “Stop being a dick.”
I always do as I’m told, so I walked into the bathroom. The yellow linoleum was covered in broken glass. All the little bead-like shards spread from the bathroom to the door, covering the sink and toilet seat. I shook my head and walked back to the other room.
Elizabeth was sitting on the couch writing. I sat down beside her and scrunched closer to her side. I promise this won’t regress into a tawdry romance. One of the more promising aspects about being around her was being capable of being confident, because I knew she couldn’t see me. Which I always thought was a good thing for her anyway.
“What time did this happen?” I asked.
“Fifteen after ten or so, if I’m not mistaken.”
“I hate you.”
“Ok,” she said, “they can hear us somehow. Look, right here.” She held up a piece of paper, and I read it briefly.
“’I didn’t write this,’” I read briefly, knowing I’d just heard him say it, “So, are you sure he didn’t just write this?”
“He hasn’t written most of the story,” she said, looking up from her slip of paper,
“He just assumes he has because he can’t remember it. Somehow, they’ve been moving themselves around at times, and at other times he’s pushing them around. They say it’s like being grabbed by the throat.”
“Are any of these characters married?” I asked and smiled.
“Thomas,” she said, “if you don’t stop with the sexist shit, I swear to god.”
“Fine. Women are great and just as smart as men and talented.”
“Anyway,” she said and rolled her eyes, “I’ve found a way to send stuff to them. One of them carries around a Styrofoam cup, the cup he found your pick in, and that’s how he sent it back. He dropped it into t he cup and it disappeared; a moment later it appeared under the coffee tin. So all we have to do is put it in the coffee tin and they’ll get it.”
“So, what do you give to a couple of wandering book characters? Actually, why the hell am I even saying that? This is absurd. What would they need? Pack of cigarettes? Cheeseburger and some fries? This is absurd. This is absurd.”
“Lots of things that are real are just as absurd as this. Friends did go for ten seasons, you know.”
She had me there.
“First, I’m going to send them some quarters for the payphone. I’ve got it written in now, and I don’t know how long it takes to change around. So, we put the story back on Herman’s desk and let them know. Sooner or later, they’ll be able to call.”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said suddenly, “I have no idea where it came from. But I just had a thought; write it down in a notebook, put it under the coffee tin, and set it on fire.”
“What makes you think that’ll work?” she asked, straining to look over at me.
“I have no idea, but it came to me. So, if we’re going to act insane – we might as well go all the way. Is there any tinfoil in the kitchen?”
“For what?” she asked.
“For hats.”
“Why do we need tinfoil hats?”
“I don’t know. Crazy people are just fond of tinfoil hats.”
“You’re a silly man,” she said, “very silly.”
“That I do not deny.”
She climbed a bit wearily to her feet and wrote down on the last bit of the page:
Off in the woods not far away, something appeared out in the dark. It was closely seven feet in height.
She handed me the page. I folded it up like an origami flower and stuck it under the coffee tin. Striking a match, I set it alight and dropped the tin over it. Then we waited for the phone to ring.
“There’s an entire world,” she said, “under that coffee tin.”
“Why that coffee tin?” I asked, “I’m sure there are nicer coffee tins out there.” Elizabeth glared at me.
“It must be really dark all the time,” I said.
“It is.”
“Put some quarters under there,” she said, “Hurry.” Crazy? I went crazy once.
Chapter 2
The Screaming Reflection

“What happened?” Anne said to her reflection in the mirror, sobbing a bit out of fright.
“I was just washing my face and I heard the mirror shatter,” the face replied,
“Where are you?”
“I’m on earth,” Anne replied to the face, “Where are you?”
“I’m on earth too,” said the face, “What country?”
“What do you mean? Country? I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure it’s earth. The oxygen I recognize immediately.”
“No, I mean which country. You know, like Italy, America, or Germany.”
“Oh, those countries split apart a long time ago from what little I understand. We live in what some people say used to be called America.”
“What do you call it now?”
“We don’t really call it anything; it’s not really important. There’s a place we’re looking for that’s far more important than where we are at now. Nothing really matters here, as long as we get there.”
“Where are you going, then?”
“Ra’s Patio,” Anne said, struck by the fact that her own reflection, someone near and dear to her, didn’t know for what she lived or why. It was somewhat disconcerting to her.
“What’s your name?” asked the face, “mine is Elizabeth.”
“My name is Anne.”
“Then why do you look so much like me?” Elizabeth asked, her eyes still wide.
“I’m talking to a mirror,” Anne responded, “I’m really not in any position to make any definitive analysis of anything. I guess it could be the drug…”
“What drug are you talking about?”
“Digitalis,” responded Anne, “If I don’t take it, I’ll die.”
“Who is that with you?” Elizabeth asked as Aaron knelt down beside Anne. The small triangle was in his mouth.
“His name is Aaron,” replied Anne, looking over at him, “he takes it too.” Elizabeth focused in, her round face swelling up in the small shard of glass.
“Where did you find that?” she asked, looking at Aaron, “Do you know what that is?”
“I found it under a cup,” the man said, “A Styrofoam cup.”
Elizabeth scrunched up her face. It looked as though she was thinking something over.
“Put it back under there,” she said after a bit, “I want to see what happens.”
Aaron looked over at Anne for a moment, thinking if he should or not. Then he took the cup out of his pocket and the red triangle from his mouth. While staring at Anne, he dropped it in the cup.
“What happened?” asked Elizabeth.
“It disappeared.”
The face in the mirror disappeared and revealed a streaked floor. A dim light was hanging not too far above it.
A minute later Elizabeth’s face swam back up in the mirror. Her hair looked better than it did before.
“What’s your name?” she asked Aaron.
“Aaron,” he said, still looking as though he failed to accept the ambiguity of the situation. Of course he dealt with mountain like piles of toothbrushes and shaving cream when the old were hauled off, kicking and screaming in the quiet. And he’d dealt with a sky that got only darker and darker day by day, and a world full of people that disappeared – replaced by inauspicious flowers. But this was odd.
“How are you seeing me?” Elizabeth asked.
“I had a snow globe,” she started, “and while some people we’re with went off to sell some things for food, it shattered and I’m seeing your face in a shard of it.” Elizabeth disappeared again, leaving Anne and Aaron staring into a dim lit room, the yellowish floor streaked and dingy with wear and weather.
She appeared again.
“Where is it you’re going again?” she asked as her round, fair face swam into focus again in the glass.
“Ra’s Patio,” said Aaron, “ because we won’t need this Digitalis. We wont need this drug any more when we get there. I’m sick of it anyway.”
“What’s it like there? At Ra’s Patio?”
“The sun is still shining, we know that. I mean, everybody is looking for it. We have a map, got it from a friend of ours, and we’re not going to have to wait too long before we get there. Things have just gotten really,” he paused, “odd as of late. More and more people are disappearing. Animals are going extinct, and we never have anything to eat.”
“Sounds a little like heaven. Are you sure it exists?” Elizabeth asked.
“No,” responded Aaron and Anne in unison.
“Where are you at right now?”
“Well,” Anne said, “Elijah and Isaac are coming back – Elijah is carrying some sort of box. We just came by this shop, Roma’s actually, to get some food and some more Digitalis. We’re about to go through the tunnels under the mill. Got to find some sort of carnival ground. Then we’re going towards the River’s, then to the maze.”
“The maze?” Elizabeth questioned.
“Yeah,” said Anne, “To get into Ra’s Patio, we have to find our way through the maze. If we don’t, we’ll die. But that’s the only place where we’ll escape being controlled like we are now.”
“So, if you get there, you won’t be controlled anymore?”
“Yes,” they said together, “If we get there.”
“Maybe I can help you,” said Elizabeth, “Maybe I can find a way for you to contact me. You see, you people are dead. How does it feel to be dead?”
“Dead?” Aaron laughed, “If this is death, then I’m completely disappointed. It’s even worse than life, of which we obviously thought little to begin with.”
“No,” responded Elizabeth, “You’re not real people. You’re a part of a story an old friend of mine is writing. The reason everything is so confusing is not because of the drug, but because he has Alzheimer’s. He forgets where he puts you, where you’re going, how you’re going to get there.”
Anne and Aaron laughed for a while.
“So, you’re saying we’re characters in a book?”
“Then how are we going to die? How do we know that we’re alive, then? Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am. How could I say that unless I was alive?”
“Because you’re written to say that, or at least you were,” she thought about it for a minute, “or, you started off as characters – but now you’ve somehow come to life. As such, I’ll help you as much as I can to find your Patio place. If it’s really there.”
“How do you know you’re not a character in a book?” Anne probed. “Yeah!” Aaron chimed in. Elizabeth’s mouth moved but they didn’t hear anything.
“Well, if you know if it’s there or not – couldn’t you save us some time?” Anne asked bright-eyed, “We’re not going to spend our life looking for a place if we’re not sure it’s there.”
“Is there some way I can prove that I’m telling you the truth? Regardless of how strange it sounds?”
“Give us a way to contact you,” Anne said, “and we’ll believe you.”
“One second,” Elizabeth said, running off.
“Tap on the mirror three times when you get back, so we’ll know it’s you,” Aaron said.
“Who else would it be, Aaron?” asked Anne, “Who else would be knocking on a shard of glass?”
It seemed like she was gone for a long time, and the mirror went dark as the yellow hue drained from the curvaceous surface of the glass. There were three taps on it and Anne jerked it back to her face.
“Hello?” she said, “Where am I? Who are you?”
“Hello,” the voice on the other side said to Anne. To Anne the man looked a lot like Elijah, but she doubted Elijah had time to hang out in mirrors with all the strain he was under.
She looked up at the man for a minute and said, “Elijah?”
“No,” the face on the other side said, “I’m not Elijah.”
“But you look just like him.” The mirror went dark again.
Aaron slumped down beside the horses by the pecan tree. Anne kept talking back and forth with the face in the mirror for a while before they heard Elijah screaming not too far off from them.
“Come,” he yelled, “Come over here!”
Anne stuffed the shard of glass down into her pocket and climbed to her feet. Aaron left the horses and ran beside Anne over the small hills towards Elijah’s voice.
“What the hell is that?” Aaron asked, walking up beside Elijah.
“It’s a phone booth,” Anne said, walking between them and up to the door. The door slid open for her and she stared at the phone.
“I don’t have any change,” Anne said, looking over her shoulder.
Aaron took out his Styrofoam cup and turned it over. Three quarters fell out onto the ground.
“Here,” he said, taking them up to her.
“Thanks,” she said as the door slid to a close behind her.
Chapter 3
Wrong Number

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” I asked.
We’d waited all night. Herman never stirred, even though he usually got up and down all night to look out his backdoor or check his answering machine. No one ever called, not even Hank, but he checked it anyway.
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth said, rubbing her tired eyes, “We don’t even know if they got the message. It was your stupid idea to burn it, you know.”
“It wasn’t my dumb ass idea that there was a world under the coffee tin.”
“You saw their faces,” she said angrily, “How can you say that they weren’t really there?”
“I spent a month in an asylum up in Columbia for seeing something that I thought was there. Just because I thought it was there, doesn’t mean it was.” Herman stumbled into the living room. Elizabeth hid some of his pages behind her back and I straightened up on the couch. He walked past us and didn’t say anything. He went up to the front door and looked out. Outside the window, what appeared to be a long line of recently uprooted corpses marched down the road. They staggered after a group of teenagers.
“Anybody call?” Herman asked.
“No,” I said, “And we stayed here all night to make sure you were alright. You seemed a bit down yesterday.”
“Alright,” he said and walked back into his bedroom. Elizabeth and I looked at each other for a minute. She went to fix a glass of orange juice after I complained about being thirsty for a while.
In the other room, on the table beside the snow globe, the phone rang. I jumped to my feet and ran into the other room.
“Hello?” I said, putting the phone to my ear. Herman was still in his room, on his mattress in the floor, with his face plunged down into his hands.
“Is a Mr. Doyle there?” the rattled voice said on the other end, before it lapsed back into static.
“Mr. Doyle?” I asked.
“Yes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” the man said irritably in a rushed, articulate voice. He seemed extremely agitated.
“Um, he’s been dead for a while now.”
“I don’t care, god damn you! Is there someone else I can talk to?”
I was silent for a minute, listening to the man on the other end argue with somebody.
“No, Watson,” said the man, “He says he’s not there. Says he’s dead or not there, either way it’s serious. Look, go over there for a while. Go play with some of the birds. I understand that, yes. I don’t see how me being there is going to improve your situation one way or another so just put a band aid on it.”
I leaned into the other room, snapped my fingers to get Herman’s attention and pointed at the phone.
“Who is it?” he asked in a tired whisper from the side of the bed, he was holding a half empty glass of orange juice.
Something was wrong with him; any other time, he’d have rushed to the phone.
“It’s um, wait a second, let me check,” I picked the phone up again and said,
“May I ask whose calling?”
“It’s Sherlock Holmes, sir,” said the voice on the other end, “Put someone on the phone, you ridiculous sounding juvenile, before I get angry!”
“It’s Sherlock Holmes,” I shouted, “and he sounds pissed.”
“Tell him I’m not home,” Herman shouted back. Now he was at least up and about, digging around in his stack of papers.
“Mr. Holmes,” I said respectfully, “He’s not in right now, can I take a message?”
“I’d like to Speak to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, asshole!”
“Hey!” I said, “Don’t get an attitude with me, Sherlock Holmes. Fictional or not, I’ll kick your ass.”
“Oh! Want to have a row, do you?” he snapped back. Someone was talking in his ear, and he kept insulting their intellect and breeding.
Then I did something I never thought I’d do: I hung up on Sherlock Holmes.
“Who was that?” Elizabeth said, rushing back into the room, “Was it … you know?”
“Nope,” I said, “Not quite.”
“Then what happened to that piece of paper and the phone booth?”
“Somehow,” I said, “someway, Sherlock Holmes found it.”
“Sherlock Holmes? What the hell?” she squinted at me in the growing dark of the living room.
“He called wanting to speak to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Somehow, you sent it to the wrong address.”
“Shit!” she scrambled for something under the couch, “Look.”
She handed me a hardback copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
“I must not have noticed I was writing on it,” she said, her cheeks glowing red,
“I’ll write the same thing on the back of one of Herman’s pages. It shouldn’t be too hard to do.”
She took out one of the pages and turned it over and wrote in the same line about the phone booth appearing out in the woods.
And we waited.
Five hours later, we waited some more.
Herman stumbled into the room as we were dozing. He looked at the ground as he walked, shuffling his feet, and mumbling something. His remaining hair was unkempt and he hadn’t shaved.
“What’s wrong?” Elizabeth said sweetly, walking up behind him when he was standing in the kitchen by himself. He’d fed his hummingbird, closed the door, and just stood around in the kitchen.
“I’m tired,” he said, “of waking up every day not knowing where I’m going to be. I’m tired of taking pills, living alone, and having to rely on other people just to get around. I’m tired of being afraid the landlords are going to come by on their golf carts with their megaphone blaring because I’ve forgotten about sending off the god damn payment. I’m tired of people hurrying to get away from me, just because I want to talk to them. They think I’m lying about everything. It’s like none of them are people, just jurors to see if I’m lying or not. I’m not guilty of lying, and I’m not going to be sent off across the River. I’m guilty of trying to care. I’m only guilty of giving a shit.”
“The river?” I said, hearing him from the other room, “You mean across Busch River in Columbia?”
“They’re trying to send me there,” he said with his dark eyes clouding up, “and all the people that go there just disappear. Nobody sees them again and nobody knows where they’ve gone. Their kids don’t care about them anymore and never visit them. They just send them off with a toothbrush and some shaving cream and nobody sees them again.”
He gestured to an open letter on the table.
“Nobody will send you there,” I said, “I promise you that.”
“Why do people say that to people that are afraid? It doesn’t make the fear go away. It crystallizes it, brings it to a boiling point, because as soon as someone says ‘everything will be just fine’ – you know that something terrible will happen. And people smile and smile, yes look at him. He’s a dancing man! He’s a liar though! He steals money…”
“We didn’t say you stole…” I tried to interject unsuccessfully.
“He’s a faggot!” he shouted, “I’m sick of being nice to people that treat me like garbage.”
We were silent for a while.
“Y’all hungry?” he said finally. We shook our heads.
He forced a tired smile and nodded. Then, with a sigh, dragged himself one foot at a time into the kitchen. He opened the door of the fridge and knelt down, searching all the empty racks.
“Did one of y’all get my pillow out of here?” he called into the living room, “It’s not in the fridge.”
“I didn’t get it,” I said and looked at Elizabeth.
“Neither did I,” she said.
“People even steal my damn pillows!” he roared, “I’m not going to take this shit anymore!”
He shuffled back into his room. His neighbor, a blues playing man by the name of Murphy, had walked out onto his front porch and was playing an acoustic guitar. He was strumming it lively and humming, rocking back and forth on a ten gallon bucket.
“I’m going to use the little girl’s room,” Elizabeth said and staggered to her feet.
“Come on,” I said, laughing, “Why don’t you just say ‘I’m going to take a shit’? Women do shit, you know.”
“Ha-ha,” she said and flipped me off.
She was only gone a minute when Murphy screamed out on the porch.
“Landlord! Landlord!” he screamed and ran back into his apartment. We heard him lock the door and run the chain along its switch. Herman rushed into the living room and stopped, looking up at me. His face had gone pale.
“Talk to them! I can’t talk to them,” he shouted and froze in his place.
I threw the magazine to the covered floor, on scattered photographs old and yellowing, hopped over a few boxes overflowing, and made my way to the bathroom. Herman jumped from his seat to follow me and knocked over his chair.
“Elizabeth,” I yelled, “Come out here and talk to him while I go deal with these people. She came out immediately and took him by the hand. I rushed back into the living room. Herman motioned for Elizabeth to turn the lights out. She stumbled over a couple of boxes of pictures, pay-stubs, empty Styrofoam cups and plates, and pulled the light string. Herman had run back into the living room to kneel down under the window.
I looked out the front window, knowing I couldn’t be seen in the dim light of Herman’s living room, and I saw three men, in green uniforms lined in golden buttons, inching their way towards Murphy’s door with clipboards in hand. One of them remained on the golf cart, and went down the road to circle back in the gravel turn around.
Herman jumped when they knocked on Murphy’s door. He was humming Mary Had a Little Lamb with the bits of afternoon light slanting in on his face from the tucked blinds of his front window. Murphy was protesting that he’d seen the payments off, that there was some sort of mistake, and if they didn’t have it in two days – he’d have it to them in two days.
He signed their paper and they left his door and walked over to Herman’s. I got up and walked over to the door. Herman – who was still kneeling under the front window – looked at me and mouthed “no” over and over.
The sun was bright when I opened the screen door. I shielded myself from the sun and lit a cigarette, locked the screen door, and closed the wooden door behind it.
“Hello,” I said to the man who greeted me with a clammy handshake.
“Is,” he flipped over some pages on his clipboard, “Herman Prince around?” His face was covered by a surgeon’s face mask for allergies. He looked like some sort of green bug. Probably because of the summer pollen in the air, I thought.
“No sir,” I said, “He ran off to Spartanburg for a band practice. I just came by to pick up some strings he got for me when he was out of town the other day.”
“Why did he get your strings?” asked the man arrogantly, “Aren’t you old enough to get them yourself?”
“Old enough?” I asked, “Sure, I’m old enough. But some people have to actually work for money instead of crawling around like parasites in a golf cart sniffing at the assholes of the unemployed and disabled to try and make sure there’s enough gas in the BMW to make it to the country club in time for the charity luncheon.”
“You like to talk, don’t you?” the man said, looking angrily at me from over his clipboard.
“Yes sir,” I said and saluted him, “and I like to fuck too. But seeing as how you don’t have your wife and daughter with you on that cart, and I’m done digging ditches, I’ll just have to settle with telling you to go latch yourself on somebody else’s belly. Stop sucking blood out of innocent people.”
“Could you give us a message for Herman for us?”
“Sure thing,” I said, walking up to him.
“He has two weeks to pay his rent; if he doesn’t, he has two weeks to find a new place to live. Ha-ha-ha, and you’re talking about decent. Decent people pay their bills on time.”
“How about you have a mouthful of dick?” I asked politely, “It has all your favorite toppings.”
He tore a slip off paper off his clipboard, handed it to me, said “Thank you,” and walked back over to his cart.
He glanced back over at me for a minute as his mask-wearing buddies pulled up at the curb. I shook my dick at him and suggested he fuck himself in sign language. Very mature, I know.
Herman grabbed me by the shoulders when I walked back in. His face was covered in beads of sweat. His eyes looked strained and uneasy.
“What did they say?” he asked, shaking me, “They want money? They want me to move out? I don’t have the money because I already sent them this month’s payment. I don’t have anywhere to go. My kids won’t return my calls, and I moved here not too long ago after…”
“Look,” I said, “its fine. They wanted me to tell you they got your payment.” I handed him the slip. I knew he couldn’t read, so this wasn’t too big of a risk. “It’s your receipt.”
He took it from me with excitement. His eyes darted all over the page hastily.
“Thank God for that,” he said, “Thank God.”
“I’ll tell him when I see him.”
He looked a great deal relieved and this cheered me a bit. Of course I felt bad for lying to him, but even if I’d told him the truth – he’d have forgotten in a couple of hours. This way, at least, he got to be happy for at least a little bit.
Looking out the window as the landlord’s drove off in their cart, the man with the surgeon’s mask turned around and saw me peaking out the front window. His face was eerie, tinged with green, and his eyes looked like thick drops of oil. Hopefully, we’d heard the last of Sherlock Holmes. I’d resisted the profound urge to say “No shit” to him – but I doubted I ever would again.
“So,” Elizabeth called to Herman, “What’s going to happen in your story now?”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t remember the first bit of this chapter, but it’s good enough so I’m going to leave it. There was some confusion amongst the characters about a phone booth. I don’t remember writing anything about it. Doesn’t matter, though, since it fits. Right now they’re about to go under the mill, you know, through the tunnels.”
“The mill?” I asked, “The one right up the road? Is that the model you’re using for it?”
There was an old, closed down mill not two blocks from the apartments.
“Yeah,” Herman said, “My papa died there when I was in high school. He hated me anyway, though. They used to send me letters all the time and bills for him. It’s kind of hard to pay your Sports Illustrated subscription fees when you’re dead. But yeah, they’ll make their way under the mill and come out the other side in front of the carnival grounds.”
“Carnival?” I asked, “Like the annual carnival we have here?”
“Something like that,” he said, smiling, “Something like that.”
“Any of them going to die? Any of them going to fall in love?” I asked, joking a bit.
“Fall in love? Nobody falls in love,” he said, “But people die, and I think one of them might.”
“Nobody should fall in love,” I said, “It makes a mess and nothing gets the stain out.”
Elizabeth’s face lit up a bit and she closed her staring brown eyes.
“How are they going to die?” she asked.
“They have a gun with them, I think … yeah, they have a gun but there are no bullets in it. And that mill is haunted.”
Elizabeth looked over at me and winked. Her vision seemed to be improving for some reason.
“What kind of gun is it?” I asked.
“.357 magnum with an ivory handle, the kind my daddy gave me for Christmas. It’s not going to have any bullets in it.”
So, once he went back to writing – I went to my house to find some bullets. Elizabeth stayed with him to keep his attention while I went off to look. Hopefully he wouldn’t kill one of them before I got back.

When I started writing this, I didn’t know how I could put Herman in a book. Bring him to life so to speak. More than anything I ever got to know about him was his profound fear that he’d be sent off one day to some hospital where they slide your food under a door. He thought he’d disappear completely like his all of his childhood friends and family had over the ten years since the onset of his Alzheimer’s. He’d been in this small apartment for ten years, but he refused to acknowledge it had been that long. It was almost like a gap in his mind.
Of course he got up every day to feed his hummingbird, or strum his dobro on the porch with his neighbor, but this seemed to be forced.
And of course, as everyone said, he talked all the time. I never wanted to butt in, because I knew how he was. He never really had anything to say, but he didn’t want to stop talking. I always thought that if he stopped talking, he’d be forced to think about himself and his life and where it had gone since the long lost glory days he never stopped talking about.
There was a time when he wasn’t one step shy of being sent off to the rubber hole, when his family was there along with his audience. This was when his family returned his calls. All the instruments he played, and pictures and posters and albums on the floor seemed to service him in forgetting what his life had been reduced to in his small cupboard. He did all this stuff, I thought, to keep his mind off himself.
I’d been thinking for days about how Herman never kept a clock in his house. Then I realized, of all the things he feared, he was afraid of time. As though, in his mind, it was inevitable that one day someone on one of those golf carts or someone at some shady court would come by and take him off to a retirement home or psychiatric ward. I’d been there and of all the things it was – fun wasn’t one of them.
Herman had absolute no options left in life, but he was debating them anyway.

Chapter 4
When Quarters Cry

Anne stood in front of the phone for a minute. She was too nervous to pick it up. Her slender fingers shook as she reached out for the phone. Aaron tapped on the glass beside her three times and she jumped, knocking the phone off the hook.
“Here,” he said, handing her the quarters, “put them in and see if you can call.” She took them in her hand and held them up to the change slot. The coin dinged and the phone spat it back out.
“What’s wrong with it?” Aaron asked.
Anne ran another quarter through it. She ran one, then the other, and then another; all were spit back out.
“Hand me one of those quarters,” said Aaron. He took them into his hand and held them up. The faces on the back had changed: George Washington’s face had twisted into a sour frown. His hair didn’t look too well kempt either.
“These are fake quarters,” he said, “but, they were normal when I gave them to you. Now they’re frowning.”
“Well, that’s enough of that shit.” Elijah said, “It’s stupid anyway. Who are we supposed to call? Road side assistance? We’ve got things to do. Come on,” he started walking towards the small patch of woods between Roma’s and the underground tunnels of the mills. Brown patches of palm hung over the beaten road through the underbrush. The mill was wrapped in vines and tangled ivy. Around the paneled brick walls the grass was as tall as some people. The mill was large, rectangular in shape, and had a central tower that rose several feet above the roof. Abandoned bags lined the cobble stone leading to the door, which stood ajar.
There had been rumors, they said at Roma’s and at other trade posts that the ghosts of the men sent off to the River’s went down into the mills to work the machines again. They saw the smoke rise from the towers when the sky turned pale grey during the twilight.
At fifteen after ten, every night, someone high up in the tallest tower rang the bells. No one knew, or was telling, how the bells were rung each night. But some peoples had set up a system of camps beside the mills, and claimed that they saw a figure standing atop the tower, silhouetted by the ghostly moon, for hours looking down at them as they went about their nights. Looking down on them with a curious, yet apathetic eye.
Anne looked around behind her and noticed that the phone booth was gone.
She thought it was another hallucination, and went along her way without thinking much about it. There were stranger things, she thought, than a phone booth springing up out of the ground. Frowning quarters, she thought, were a bit stranger than any sort of magic phone booth, manifested entirely or otherwise fabricated.
Many of the animals, and indeed more than a billion or so human beings, had died – or disappeared – once the atmosphere got thinner and thinner, limiting the supply of oxygen. People living at high altitudes went down into low valleys, and there the air was thinner than it had been at the top of the tallest mountain. The plants and vegetation had grown more and more sparse.
The people that lived noticed a pattern in the people surviving: they were all by someway connected to the thick black Digitalis. When this spread around what remained of the burning cities, when hysteria was at its highest peak, people started experimenting on themselves and dying family members along with sick and vomiting cows. Even some of their less agreeable relatives were turned into experimentations.
The atmosphere had changed, that was sure, and each day the sun seemed to take two steps back into the big empty. No one knew why it had, but everyone knew that it did. Many thought the sun just crept off to get some sleep at night because she had to work all day.
Most of the information about what exactly happened to the world had been lost in the shadows of a Ten Year Gap. It was a missing roll of film from the picture. They knew the architecture of the economy in what Elizabeth called America had fallen after experimenting with replicating viruses and biological forms of stasis. The world was still halfway between one stage and another.
Foreign countries had attacked the States and they were completely unaware. Millions of people had died in days, and those who survived were carted off on wheelbarrows as unwitting test subjects invariably subjected to drastic and uncontrollable forms of viral stimulation.
Gradually the atmosphere and oxygen got thinner and thinner and the wistful white and billowy silver clouds gave way to snake-like tangles of dark and murky grey, and dark, electricity riddled night.
As well as thinning the atmosphere, the ever darkening clouds had begun to block out the sun – turning the earth into a never ending cycle of dark-night and half-night, though it was never bright enough to be considered brighter than a dim dusk as it is when the Belt of Venus wraps its gentle arm around the earth. People had managed to survive and gather round other people to trade for goods and assist one another. Those who couldn’t find a group to work their way into usually died out in the Piles, with their toothbrushes and shaving cream cans, or floated with a flower in their hands, and a flower on their pillow – if they had one – down the Vanishing River.
And then the rumors started. First they appeared in tree-bulletins, or were communicated by VTS – a transmission system of communication. There were bulletins on every tree in the forest. Have you seen this person? Most of them read, or I’m looking for something, willing to give something else. The others were similar. Bulletins were posted when food or freshwater resources were found on the trees near Roma’s. He paid his scouts handsomely, and by posting their invaluable bulletins near Roma’s warehouse – people would be more prone to come to his shop if these were in the surrounding trees. And of course there was the most valuable of all the information: where there was Digitalis and the price.
Digitalis was in the center, firmly planted, of everything people did. People left their kids at Roma’s in his nursery so they could make sure they had enough to last them the trip.
The blue planet, as Sam said it was once called, had lost its ocean blues and golden sun and a dark dusk cloud cradled it in the waste. Out of this darkness Ra’s Patio arose as a beacon of light. Like a lighthouse guiding lost ships ashore in storm. Ra’s Patio was the lighthouse. It was a streetlight for all the wandering moths. Everyone was lost at sea and wandering blindly in the dark. Each ship just wandered by another, passing in a storm with nothing to say.
Without Digitalis there’d be no reason to live at all. Everybody took Digitalis, or something that did what it does. Some people collected and made stick figures or drew, like Elijah, in the dirt to pass the time. Some had it planted into their left palm and rigged up to a haphazard mechanical mechanism used to filter it into the blood.
All the long and trampled trails through the pines were like a million paths to nowhere: the gaping mouth that stood just shy the shore of the River’s. There was a maze that everybody knew of. This much was fact. Four statues stood at the mouth of the maze. Each offered a different path through the hedge. At the summit, high above the mouth and river, there was a small light that never wavered.
Thousands of people migrated with their clothes and families, on carts and wagons, and crawled up and down the deserted areas of empty cities. Some areas had been untouched, but the bigger cities had rose to bloom and like a flower in the winter wilted.
There were piles of logs, hollowed and black, scrap metal, and torn up autos.
He’d been thinking of what Roma said. What Roma said of his guilt and state of mind in particular. He did feel guilty, but he knew he had no purpose other than to get to Ra’s Patio before the Digitalis dried up his mind. He heard the woman’s voice inside his head, high up above him on her podium. And there was that clicking, the slow rattling of the juror’s teeth.
It was snowing again as Elijah and Isaac walked down the long, yellow cement walkway leading up to the back door of the mill. The tunnel was closed in by two tall and cracking cement walls, and at the entrance was a small awning, under it a swinging light flickered on and off. There were handprints and smudges on the windows. Dried streaks of blood caked on its grimy surface.
Aaron and Anne had stopped as Aaron got all their things off the backs of the horses to let them go.
“Here,” Aaron said to Anne in a quiet voice, “Take this gun. You might need it.” He handed over an ivory handled .357 magnum with a rose on the butt.
“My father gave it to me before he left,” he said, smiling, “and it has gotten me out of a lot of trouble. Maybe it’ll help you out.”
She closed her eyes for a minute. It seemed like she was living out a cliché. My father gave it to me? She thought, You might need it?
This sounds like something out of bad fiction, she thought. The strange feeling got stronger when she realized what the cliché usually meant.
In most fiction, she thought, when a character gives another a gift they received from family, it usually means they’re going to die. One of them would die.
“Thanks,” she said and took it in her shaking hand, “I’m sure I won’t need it though.”
He nodded, hoping she was right, and walked nervously up behind Elijah as he, with a crowbar, smashed the glass door. He stuck his hand through into the dark and unlocked it, turned around to face Isaac, and laughed a long, loud laugh.
The old door creaked as they made their way into the tepid, dank basement of the old mill.
A small bit of the outside light had filtered into the door, casting their shadows on the long floor before them as they inched their way through the door. In the far right corner, past a long line of torn up desks, covered in paper and broken pencils, there was a doorway with the door hanging off the hinges. There was a faint yellow light spilling in front the doorway.
The floor was made of cement and cold. To their right there was a small, opened closet. There were a few brooms, water bucket, and a mop in there. All of them were pretty much antiques.
Elijah held his lighter up as they made their way across the room and into the yellow lit room in the far corner. Along the walls there was a long line of grey tables that stood on rusted legs. Papers were untidily strewn about the tables and on each cemented wall were fitted hanging lanterns. The ceiling was low and covered in asbestos, cracks and spider webs.
Elijah walked out in front with the small flame of his lighter wafting and flickering as he walked slowly towards a small trap door beside a desk. On a long desk was a short velvet draped lamp. Beside it was a ragged book, turned open to a specific page, marked by a long, purple tassel.
Elijah stuck it in his pocket and, with his gun drawn, passed out of the long, close room and into a narrow corridor on the other side of it.
Shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be doing that.
Elijah heard inside his head. Aaron was talking with Anne in a low voice, and
Isaac just walked and stared blankly by repetition as he always did.
What did you do? He heard, Why did you eat them knowing what would happen?
“I didn’t know it would happen,” Elijah muttered. His lips were trembling.
Yes you did, said a whisper beside his ear, You just didn’t care.
“What are you talking about, Elijah?” Isaac asked.
“I’m not guilty of anything,” he said, “I’m not guilty of anything.”
“What is anyone saying to you about guilty, you dick?” Anne asked.
“When I lived on our grandfather’s farm, when I was young, they grew peppers. Cayenne and Jalapeno peppers. One night when I was starving, since our water ration was being stolen by the Searcher’s, I snuck out into the garden and ate a bunch of the peppers. The next day I went out into the field to talk to my mother when she was hanging up clothes. Under a mat in the shed I saw a leg of something, which turned out to be the leg of a dog – one of the last dogs alive.
‘What happened?’ I’d ask her; ‘What happened to these dogs?’ She knew, and I knew, that the dogs would’ve sold for damn near anything.
“’I killed them,’ I remember her saying as she hung out our bed sheets, “because they keep sneaking into the garden at night to eat our peppers.’”
Isaac had stopped suddenly with a blank expression on his face. Elijah turned to talk to him but stopped. In the other room they heard the sound of glass hitting the floor. Anne took the gun from behind her, tucked into the small of her waist, and drew it back. She pulled back the hammer and as she did she heard a voice pour through the inside of her coat pocket – in the tiny shard of glass.
“The gun,” the voice said on the other side, “has no bullets in it. Tell your friend to shake the Styrofoam cup.”
Anne didn’t bother to look at the glass but did as it said. She ran up to Aaron frantically, as he had stopped to write his name on one of the paneled mirrors, and pulled him down to her, whispering in his ear rapidly.
“Get the cup,” she said, “and shake it.”
“Isaac came and got it from me for some reason,” said Aaron, making his way towards the open doorway – the hinges had been ripped and it barely hung closed.
Aaron ran off into the other room as Anne began to cry. He came back a moment later with the cup in his hand.
“Shake the fucking cup!” Anne screamed. Elijah had stopped to read the book on the lamp lit table and Isaac was still bug-eyed and frozen.
Three bullets from the cup fell to the floor and rattled when they hit the ground, sending a tinny echo through the cramped space of the mill.
“What was that?” Elijah asked,
“Bullets,” said Aaron, “fell out of that cup.”
Elijah knelt down and inspected them, turning them one by one over in his hand.
“They’re for a .357,” he said, “Here, Anne,” he handed them to her, “Might want to put some bullets in that thing.”
She blushed and loaded the gun, stuck it into the inside pocket of her jacket.
They weaved in and out of the poorly lit underground catacombs for a while, making their way over scattered bits of wood and spider webs that hung from the low ceilings. The farther they made it underground, the stuffier everything seemed to be: the air was thick and stuffy, suffocating really, and at every turn and door they found someone dead or dying. They’d stop to check them for food, supplies, or some Digitalis. Most of them had died from their hands draining completely, left to wiggle about on the floor as they choked.
Elijah had long suspected that the man that rang the bell in the high tower every night, some how, in some manner made sure their safety. People debated as to whether or not the shadowed form that crawled into the bell tower nightly was a man or some sort of apparition, hallucination, or some other sort of drug induced trickery. Elijah believed him to be absolutely real; Aaron, on the other hand, didn’t much care if he was there or not, and if he was, he thought, surely he wouldn’t bother to help them pass through.
They were halfway through the main tunnel, a long hallway with a cracked, muddy cement floor, when they heard the bell chime for the first time of the evening.
“He’s there,” Elijah said aloud to no one in particular, “He’ll make sure we make it.”
“Just because he’s there,” spoke Aaron, clicking his aching joints together, “doesn’t mean he’s going to help us out.”
“Such little faith,” Elijah said and laughed. His loud, wheezy giggle flooded down the door-lined passageway. At the end of the long hall there was a black door, grey handle, and there was smeared blood all over it.
“There’s going to be a man inside the black door,” Anne heard inside her pocket. Elijah walked on towards it together with Isaac, who nodded silently without shrugging or making a face.
“What was that?” asked Aaron, stopping to walk over to Anne.
“There’s going to be a man inside the door,” the voice said inside her pocket again, “He’s going to try to kill you.”
Anne took out the mirror and held it up in front of her. She was half-way blind, but she always said she could see clearly into the scratched mirror.
Her face, the reflection that had earlier screamed, stared back at her with wide eyes.
“Have your gun out,” the face said, “You’ll make your way into a room with a lot of old, broken down sewing machines. The man sleeps in the corner. He’s about to die, anyway, so don’t worry about shooting him; he’s harmless. But regardless, if I’ve read correctly, he’s going to try to rape you.”
“Elizabeth?” whispered Anne, “Is that you?”
“Yes,” said the face with a smile, “I’m sorry about the phone booth. There was a mistake, apparently.”
“What was wrong with the quarters?” asked Anne.
“We sent the phone booth to the wrong place,” she said, turning to her side.
“We had quite an unexpected call this evening.”
“What happened to the quarters? They were fake.”
“They were real,” replied Elizabeth, “when we sent them through the tin. Somehow, the phone booth went somewhere else. That’s when the quarters went bad. Whenever we send the booth to the right place, the quarters will be normal. If they’re frowning, you won’t be able to use them. Keep them on you anyway.”
“When can you put it in again?”
“Once you come out the other side,” Elizabeth said, “There’ll be a phone booth waiting just shy of the carnival grounds. If the quarters are normal, you should be able to call.”
“What number should I dial? Is there some sort of one eight hundred number?
Or should I dial zero? And what if the phone is busy? I’m not, by all means, going to sit around waiting on some magic phone booth when there are places to go and people to see. Imagine how I’d feel if I missed out on something important waiting for a call.”
“Open that book you have.”
Anne was silent for a moment, considering.
“You’re so sure that Ra’s Patio is there,” said Elizabeth, “that you have yet to think about what will happen if it’s not. What if it’s not there? What do you do then?”
“If it’s not there,” Anne said, “then there’s nothing to live for anyway.”
“Maybe I can change it. Maybe I can get you there, and get you out from under Herman’s control.”
“No matter,” she said, “Once you get there, you’ll be able to live without him being able to control you. When the quarters smile, we’ve got control of the story.”
She took the quarters out of her pocket and looked at them: all of the faces were normal this time, no frowns or boo-hoo-hoo.
Elijah screamed as the black door swung open, banging loudly against the cement wall. Anne tucked the shard of glass back into her pocket and ran towards the door, slowly taking out her .357.
The room was tinged with an eerie blue as she slid inside it with her back to the wall. Her heart was pounding and her hands, wrapped around the handle of her pistol, were shaking as she turned her head to look inside the room.
There were out of work sewing machines, covered in spider webs, stacked up around the room. In the far corner she saw a pile of cotton, some leaves, and a couple of torn bits of a sleeping bag. Elijah and Isaac had disappeared into the far corner of the room; Aaron was standing by the door as Anne poked her head inside.
“He thought he saw somebody,” Aaron said, putting his hand on Anne’s shoulder, “but he’s alright now. He’s just over there trying to get the lock open. He says it’s in some sort of foreign language that he can’t read.”
There was a small light hanging from the center of the room; throwing in a long, slanting grey line that revealed the tufts of dust and smoke floating around in the room. There were long panels of mirrors lined on the wall in front of Anne, and in the other corner was a giant stack of cardboard boxes.
Anne reached into her pocket and pulled out the shard of glass. It was blank; all she saw in it was her reflection, and not the reflection she’d seen scream not too long ago. Behind her reflection, in the glass, there was the same glass covered yellow floor. She heard muffled talking as she put it to her ear, and tapped the glass three times and waited. Isaac stood with his back against the wall, looking down at his hand, as Elijah screamed and kicked up against the locked door.
The bell rang again and Elijah’s strained eyes let go of the lock and looked up blankly. He hoped for some sort of sign, or clue, that might help him get past the locked door. Nothing came. He stared upwards for a while as Aaron, from the other side of the room, looked on. Anne had sunk up against the streaked cement wall with her face plunged down into her hands.
“Why are you in here?” said a voice inside the room, “you have no business coming here. No business here at all.”
“Who said that?” asked Isaac, his face showing some signs of life after so long a mute silence. Earlier, before they case the small neighborhood near Roma’s, he had been much more animated. His face had tensed up, becoming a weathered set of leathery wrinkles and dirt.
“You don’t even know where you’re going,” said the same voice again, “You have no business coming here. We don’t want to listen to your stories. What use have the dead for precious memories and birthday cards?”
Across the room Elijah saw an object move under a blue-glass window. An old bottle fell from one of the tables pushed against the wall and shattered on the floor. Into their view crept a man with long, tangled hair, and a dark and sweating face.
Anne reached into her pocket and pulled out the three quarters again. They were frowning. She stuffed them back into her jacket pocket and lifted the .357 up to her face. There was a metallic click as the revolving chamber spun open.
The bullets were gone and all the quarters were most unhappy.
Why do you keep calling here? You’ve got no reason to call here so late. What do you want?
Chapter 5
The String Cheese Mandolin

“Did they go through?” I asked, coming back into the main room. Elizabeth leaned over the side of the couch and tipped the coffee tin over.
“Well, they’re gone. So, they must’ve gotten through. They’ll be fine, I talked to them. As long as Herman doesn’t go back to writing before they get out of the mill.”
“Why does that matter?”
“He gave one of them a gun, and the gun isn’t going to work when they try to fire it. But when I was talking to her, Herman came back in the room. So I hid the glass and went back into the living room. I don’t know if he got control of them again or not, but they know we’ll be able to put a phone booth in once they get out of the mill.”
“Do you realize how ridiculous all of this sounds, Elizabeth? This is absurd. This is absurd.”
“Yeah, I know,” Elizabeth said and blushed, “But if we can get them to that place, that Ra’s Patio, Herman won’t be able to control them anymore.”
“It’s kind of funny,” I said, “To think that we can help them, but we can’t help ourselves.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, don’t you see the parallel? From what I’ve read of it, it seems to be more about us than them.”
“Parallel? Between what?”
“Ra’s Patio. Think about it; everybody’s looking for it, dying to get there. They don’t care about how the world is, or how it’s become, and it seems to have turned into some sort of waste land of abandoned buildings and movie theatres.”
“What’s the parallel, though?”
“Ra’s Patio is what they call heaven.”
“But they’re not really sure if it’s there or not,” she said, “Are we?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was someone who could help us get to heaven?”
“But there’s a difference,” she said solemnly, “We don’t have anything planted in our arms.”
“No,” I replied, “but we do depend on medicine. I take Paxil for my nerves and sleeping pills. Herman takes medicine for his Parkinson’s disease, and you take medicine for your eyes. It’s all, in essence, just as he sees it in Digitalis.”
She stared at me for a while without saying anything. I thought of how I must have looked to her, with the way she saw the world.
“I wonder how things got to this point,” I said finally, “Things seemed to be going along normally. How did this shit with the glass happen?”
“It has something to do with what he typed that night when I was in the bathroom. I know he typed it seven times in a row before the mirror shattered. There was the moth, that golden moth … it showed up in the story, didn’t it? Then it showed up here in our snow globe, just like it did in Digitalis. Then in the story the moth got out, and now the moth here is gone too. I wonder what that means, if anything.”
“What did he type that night?” I asked, lighting another cigarette to try to calm my nerves.
“Let me find it for you,” she said. She jumped up from the couch and ran into the other room. A moment later she came back with a tattered piece of paper in her hands.
“Here,” she said, “read it.”
I took it in my hands and turned it over to read: Once last night or yester-year, I could inside a mirror hear; when I looked through I saw into my own face crystal clear. From one world to another through a mirror I did peer.
“So,” I said, handing the paper back to her, “Somehow, through typing this shit over and over, he opened up some sort of … some sort of bridge between us and them?”
“As ridiculous as that sounds,” she said, “That seems about the size of it. But, stranger things have happened.”
I lifted up my shirt to wipe my mouth, and she bent over closely to my stomach.
“Are those scars?” she asked curiously.
I tugged my shirt back down and said, “Oh, that was a long time ago. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Where does the time go?” Herman asked, stumbling back into the front room. Elizabeth and I had been there for a couple of nights. Her parents were visiting the folks and I was a grown man, so they let her stay after a bit of protesting and
I pretended someone gave a shit where I was going to be.
Where does it go? Nobody’s sure. I never knew why it mattered.
“Where does it go, Thomas?” he asked again, looking up from his newspaper.
“It’s probably not such a big mystery. It probably just goes to Wal-Mart like the rest of us.”
He forced a tired – and extremely kind – laugh and threw his head back into his hands.
“What’s got you moping around?” I asked him, throwing my arm over his hunched shoulders.
“My hummingbird is gone,” he said, “I went to feed him last night, and he was gone. You know the little house I built for him?”
“I don’t think he liked it.”
“So, you think your hummingbird left due to poor real estate value? Don’t be worried about it. That ruby-throated hummingbird wasn’t supposed to be in this part of the world. Actually, that’s something we should investigate.”
He laughed again. His eyes were blank, as though he was looking at everything and nothing, staring forward starkly as though he had long ago drifted far above his crowded cupboard.
Elizabeth was splayed out on the couch with a cotton comforter draped over her. Herman stared over at her for a while. I was sitting on the floor, propped against the couch, sorting through shoeboxes full of pictures, flyers, notes, pamphlets and tiny slips of paper with hastily written phone numbers on them. Then I noticed something I wish I never would’ve noticed: all of the autographs, phone numbers, birthday cards from friends and family, posters and well-wishes – all were written in the same, unmistakable red of Herman’s favorite Sharpie marker.
He had faked every bit of it. Maybe he didn’t even know it. Perhaps he would crawl into the living room late at night and pour over page after page of blank pictures, signing them to his own liking. I wondered why I’d never noticed it before. I knew I’d never be able to tell him that I knew that it was all a lie. I never looked at him the same way after that. I always thought he was a poor old miser clinging to a past life that was a much happier time for him. Then I found out that he was clinging to fantasies of his own creation that never existed. Why would he make it up? I never mentioned it to him, my dad, or Elizabeth or anyone. Years later, when I was engaged, I’d mention it to my fiancé.
“One time I was up in Norfolk, Virginia, with some friends up there at a bluegrass festival,” he was saying to Elizabeth, “We had one of those mongrel dogs. It was a mix breed, chow or something, but it was a good ole dog. We called him Sambo, and he was damn good with the kids. Damn good with the … with the kids. They were young when we got him. He sure was afraid of thunderstorms. We had him out in a big backyard at the house me and my wife were stayin’ in, and every time it’d thunder, the crazy ole dog would dig his way out of the fence.
“We always wondered,” he continued hurriedly, “why he was so scared of the thunder. So I call up the person we got him from and say ‘Hey bud, why’s that there dog afraid of the thunder?’ and the man says to me ‘I don’t know for sure, Herman, but I think it has something to do with what happened when he was a pup.
“When the mama first had ‘em, she’d had them up under the edge of a shed out by the pens. After a while, the puppies started showin’ up missin.’ So one night I stayed up on the back porch to see if I could find out what it was that was takin’ the pups off.
“It was near the end of October when I first saw the bear come up into the yard. This was a big ole bear, Herman, and he was comin’ up to the fence and takin’ the pups out into the woods. I started waitin’ up for him to come back with my rifle. And every time he’d come up in the yard, I’d run out there shootin’ and yellin’ at him. And every time, mama dog would push your Sambo up under the edge of the shed. He was the runt; so he was able to fit up under the edge of the shed. The bear came up there every night, and when he’d get into the fence and get one of the pups, I’d shoot at him until I plum ran out of bullets. And every time, that ole dog would push little Sambo up under the fence.’
“That’s why he was afraid of the thunder,” Herman said, “It sounded like Mark’s twelve gauge. So every time it thundered, that damn dog dug his way out of the fence! Ha-ha!”
I forced a smile and shoved a bunch of pictures back into an old shoebox; then stood up; walked over to one of the instruments he had hanging on the wall. There was a classical guitar with no strings on it hanging from one of the mounts on the wall. Beside it was a regular semi-hollow body Gibson E35. On the hardwood floor, beside the record player, was a small mandolin shaped case.
“I never knew you played the mandolin,” I said, kneeling down to open up the case, “Why don’t you play something for me?”
“Hand it here then!” he shouted, shaking Elizabeth to make her move her legs so he could sit down on the couch.
I picked up the case and, carefully, stepped over his pile of shit. Let’s be honest, at this point, they were no longer to be considered stuff: they are henceforth considered shit.
Elizabeth scrunched up just enough for him to sit down and I handed him the case. I leaned against the couch on the floor and lit a cigarette. The coffee tin sat inconspicuously beside me. I used it as my ashtray, hoping all the while that it didn’t somehow turn to rain for them.
I took a long draw from my cigarette, flicked the ashes, and lay back to relax. For a minute I waited on Herman to start his rapid, virtuoso like strumming. Instead, in the other room, the sound of glass shattering rang out. Elizabeth jumped from the couch and ran into the other room. Herman stayed seated where he was, with his mandolin on his lap. I rushed off into the other room to find out what happened.
In the other room, the snow globe had shattered; there was glass, like tiny beads, covering the floor. And the golden moth that had been trapped inside it, fluttered, as we watched, out the back window. We ran over to the window and looked out into the early evening night as the moth, with its trails of gold behind it, fluttered up out of sight.
“Something’s wrong, buddy,” Herman shouted from the living room. Elizabeth ran to try and pick up the pieces of glasses as I went to tend to Herman in the living room.
“What is it?” I said as I walked back in front of his couch, “What’s wrong?”
“Look at these strings,” he said, and held up his mandolin.
The strings on his mandolin looked like cheese. String cheese, white and rubbery to be exact, had replaced his usual strings. I knelt beside the couch on the floor to put out my cigarette and by accident turned over the coffee tin.
Under it was a small pack of mandolin strings. Beside it was a flower – just a flower.
“The moth is gone,” Elizabeth said, “Do you feel strange?” Strange? Nah.
Day after day for months I had lived by repetition. Every day seemed to be the same generic cycle of bullshit. Waking up, showering (sometimes), shaving (sometimes,) and brushing my teeth. Getting dressed, yeah, going off to some silly ass job. But now it seemed like I had been taken a step outside of the monotony of routine that so many people seem to fall into young only to find out when they’re thirty that all those years behind the counter can’t be bought with any amount of money and all the missed adventure of a young life has long ago gone.
Maybe this was why Herman made up his stories about his glory days in Nashville. So he could reflect on his life as worthwhile, or by some reason allow this to give him a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment that would let him live out his remaining days in a tiny corner of the world, rolling around in a mountain of pictures of forged documents and fantasies. I didn’t hate him once I found out that it was all fabricated; I saw further into him, it seemed.
And there was a flower by the strings. Just a flower.
I leaned over to Herman and pointed at his mandolin. “You gonna eat that?” I asked, smiling a bit.
“Nah, I’ve got some sandwiches in the fridge though. You hungry?”
“Actually, sir,” I said, “I am kind of hungry.”
Chapter 6
A Mirror Sees Itself

“What are you doing here?” the man said as Anne slid behind Aaron to hide. He held up a butterfly knife and smiled a crooked, yellow smile. Elijah slid into the shadows behind the open door and against the wall. Isaac had passed into the basement, through the door, and was sitting in the corner with his diary open.
The man lurched towards Aaron. Behind him Anne was holding her mouth closed, trying not to cry or let him hear her.
“What do you have to eat?” he asked, running into a small table, “I live here, you see. There, there is a hole in the wall. That’s where I live.”
“Are the payments reasonable?” Elijah asked from behind him. The man stood in the center of the room under the light, in the middle of four tables. A bit of light poured in from the windows by the wall. Elijah was about ten feet behind him, concealed, as he stumbled towards Anne and Aaron.
“The payments?” the man asked, turning around, “What do you mean?”
“Well, well, well,” said Elijah and laughed, “You said you stayed here. And all that space? Must cost a pretty penny. How long have you been here?”
“I’m not sure; it’s been too long since I’ve seen any sort of calendar or date. If I found one now, it probably wouldn’t even be able to tell me anything.”
“How much longer do you want to live here?” Elijah asked and laughed again, cocking his pistol.
“I just want some food,” he said, staggering out of the light and by the door where Aaron stood.
“We don’t have any food,” said Aaron, trying to block Anne from his view, “That’s where we’re going now. Trying to find some food.”
“Oh no!” the man shouted, “You’ve got something tastier than food!” he grabbed Anne by the hair and jerked her from behind Aaron. Aaron leapt forward and grabbed at her left wrist, pulling down her glove as the man dragged her backwards back under the light. He licked her throat and then put the butterfly knife to it.
Elijah walked right up behind him, slipping into the light, and tapped him on his shoulder. He jerked around. The dull, rusted blade of the butterfly knife scraped a bit of her neck.
“Who’s there?” the man asked, starting to sweat, turning from one side to the other frantically as Elijah ducked back into the dark.
“You can kill her if you’d like,” Elijah said. “But, if you touch her – I’m going to kill you.”
The man caught Anne’s trembling hands as she was going for her gun again.
“What’s this, snowflake? Aw, you’ve got a pistol. Did anybody show you how to use it?”
He flipped open the revolving chamber and saw that it had no bullets. Seeing this, he handed her the gun.
“Put it to my chin,” he said and licked the side of her face, “I like it rough.”
He started pulling down her stockings from behind when Elijah tapped him on the shoulder again.
“Ha-ha! You’re a fucking goober!” he yelled.
Anne pulled the trigger once and heard it click as he hiked up her skirt from behind. Obviously, Anne thought, Elijah was going to amuse himself with the man for a minute and let him rape her.
Anne pulled the trigger again, again, again, again, and again. Six times, there were no bullets. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her neck back. She pulled the trigger again and shuddered when she heard the same hollow click of the empty chamber being fired.
When he slid her short, black dress to the floor – she saw the three quarters spill out of her pocket and onto the floor.
Their faces were smiling.
She put the gun firmly under his jaw and pulled the trigger. He staggered back as the bullet hit his jawbone and shattered, falling into one of the tables, and fell up against the far wall under the blue window.
Elijah laughed as he slinked down against the wall, holding at his throat and coughing.
“Man!” he shouted, “You look different! Let me guess,” he knelt down in front of him, “You parted your hair to the side, didn’t you? No, you had your nails done! That has to be it!”
The man stared back at Elijah with his clouded, grey eyes. He smiled at Elijah and took a small, brown box with a golden lock out of his pocket, and sat it on the floor by Elijah’s feet.
“For me?” Elijah gasped, “And I didn’t know you cared.”
He picked up the box and struggled to open it for a minute. The man in front of him coughed again, spitting up blood, and slid, from his front pocket, a small key across the floor.
Elijah looked at him strangely and then forced a tired laugh. He took the small key, slid it in the lock, and opened it up. He stood and put it on the table. For a minute he stared at it as the slow hum of the music started. It was a music box, invaluable, and in the center of it was a tiny ballerina.
The man on the floor was tapping his fingers to the melody when he closed his eyes. A minute later, his hand loosened from his neck and his head fell to the side. Anne walked over to stand in front of him. Elijah got up and, along with Aaron, walked into the other room where Isaac was.
Anne snatched up the music box and closed it, turning the stuffy, close room back over to silence. Only the soft shuffle of feet in the other room was heard as Anne walked into the other room.
“You piece of shit,” Anne said to Elijah, “You were just going to watch him rape me?”
“Pretty much,” said Elijah, thumping at the small vial in the palm of his hand, “but you handled it so well. Bravo! How did you do that? The gun was empty when he looked, and I heard it click at least six times, so how did you still shoot him?”
Anne ran back into the other room and picked up the three quarters off the ground. She ran back into the other room and showed them to Elijah.
“So? These are antiques,” he said.
“No,” said Anne, “They’re for the phone booth. Just outside of the carnival grounds.”
“Well,” he said, rubbing his hands through his tangled knot of black, wire-like hair, “That certainly seems plausible. But where did the bullets come from?”
“Look into here,” she said, handing him the mirror from the inside pocket of her coat.
“What is it?” he asked, looking down into the piece of glass. His reflection looked back at him and said, “This is absurd.” He nodded, and his reflection did as well, “I agree,” he said.
“Ask him to describe where he lives,” Anne said, sitting down beside Elijah.
Isaac was sitting by himself in the corner quietly.
“So, where do you live?” asked Elijah.
“In a small town, somewhere in South Carolina,” the face in the mirror said.
“Well?” Elijah said to Anne, “What does that prove?”
“Don’t you hear how he’s referring to where he lives? He’s not calling it any sort of territory. He’s calling it by the old state names that Sam uses.”
“What is ‘Alaska’?” Elijah questioned.
“Alaska is a state up north,” said the face, “You would have to take a plane to get there from here, though.”
“It’s like a vehicle that goes through the sky.”
“What color is the sky right now?” Elijah asked.
“Right now?” asked the face, “Right now it’s a light blue color. Most of the clouds are white, most of the time.”
“So, you don’t take Digitalis?”
“Yes, I do. Everybody does, they just call it by different names.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Thomas,” said the squinting face in the mirror, “But, I look a lot like you.”
“This is absurd,” Elijah said.
“And apparent,” said Thomas, “we think the same way in most things.”
“This is absurd, yes, but fascinating. It gives me a great idea for a story. Well, I’ll get Isaac to write it, and I’ll just document it as he goes along.”
“I’m doing the same thing,” said Thomas, “Herman is writing your story. It’s hard for me to tell you this, but you don’t really exist.”
“What makes you think that you exist?”
“Cogito ergo sum,” said Thomas, “I’m aware of myself.”
“Cogito ergo sum,” said Elijah, “so am I. You do know that Isaac has been really quiet lately; I think he’s writing a book. What strikes me is the fact that in the book, there’s a character named Thomas. Isaac said he had some of my traits and all, so somehow, as stupid as this sounds, some sort of bridge has been suspended between us. Was there a golden moth?”
“Yes,” said Thomas, “It got caught into the snow globe somehow, and once the snow globe shattered, it got away.”
“The same thing happened to us, really. The snow globe was tucked away in Anne’s trunk, with that book she always carries around, and she heard it shatter. Then the golden moth fluttered out, that’s when we started feeling strange. It was a strange, strange feeling. It was like waking up without ever having gone to sleep.”
Elijah sat with him for a bit, gripping tightly at the small shard of glass. Aaron was talking to Isaac in the other room, and Anne was sitting with the music box in her hands. She watched the ballerina spin round and round for a while. Moments later, Isaac came up to Elijah and knelt beside him.
“Ask him if he got his guitar strings,” Isaac said.
“What?” asked Elijah, setting the piece of glass down on the dusty, mud- streaked floor.
“Just ask them if they got their mandolin strings.”
“You just said guitar strings.”
“Stop being petty,” Isaac said quietly and walked back into the adjacent room. Anne was still sitting in the floor with her music box open. Aaron disappeared into the other room to talk to Isaac.
“Did you get your mandolin strings?” Elijah asked. The face in the mirror was blank for a moment.
“Yeah,” Thomas said, “That was considerate. They weren’t real, of course; they were all made out of paper and crumbled up in our hands. But it was still a cute gesture.”
There was a ticking sound that made the glass ripple as it sounded. Loud at first, it got softer and then disappeared.
“What is that?” Elijah asked the glass.
“A clock,” Thomas replied, “It’s frozen.”
“What time does it say?”
“Fifteen after ten.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m really not sure,” said Thomas, “but all the clocks have stopped. They still tick, but the hands don’t move.”
“I don’t normally get to chat with my reflection,” said Elijah, “so, I hate to cut this short. But if we’re going to get Isaac up and moving again, we’ll have to take his pen away.”
“What’s he writing?” Thomas asked with a bit of curiosity.
“Something about a flower,” Elijah said, “Other than that, he won’t say.”
The reflection stepped aside and all Elijah could see was the same yellow, streaked floor lined in glass. Anne took the piece of glass from him and tucked it away.
“Ok,” Elijah said, “other than the fact that you’ve got a talking mirror, somehow, that doesn’t tell me how you got the bullets.”
“This girl on the other side gave them to me.” Anne said.
“On the other side? That sounds ridiculous,” replied Elijah, “Talking to a mirror and getting something from it are two very different things.”
“Want the simple version, or the long version?”
“Whichever is more entertaining.”
“It’s more entertaining if there’s mystery, so I’ll give you the short version. Aaron shook them out of his Styrofoam cup.”
“That’s not really entertaining,” Elijah said and laughed, “A bit fucked up, of course, but entertaining? Sounds like something out of bad fantasy novel.”
“You know,” Anne said and smiled, “you’re more right than you think.”
“Look at these quarters,” she said, “and tell me if they look different to you.” He took them from her and turned them over in his hand, inspecting them.
“They look a bit glum,” he said after a minute or two, handed them back to her.
“Let’s try to make it out of here tonight,” she said, “And can’t we be quick about it?”
“I wish more women thought like you,” Elijah said and laughed, “but why are the quarters so disappointed?”Chapter 7
The Door in the Sand

“Next time you call me in here to talk to a mirror,” I said to Elizabeth, “Blind or partially blind or not, I’m going to kick you in the throat.”
“You still don’t believe it, do you? I mean, you’ve seen it. You’ve heard it. What else do you need to believe in something?”
“For one thing,” I said, “I could be hallucinating. Another thing, I could’ve banged my head somewhere up in Columbia and right now I’m on a stretcher headed for God’s waiting room.”
“God? So, you believe in God?”
“Not really,” I admitted. I was born allergic to strawberries; if there is a kind and loving god, there’s no way this could happen. The Ave Maria, however, keeps me from being completely atheist. However, Bon Jovi is constantly pushing me in that direction.
“Why? Because you can’t see or hear him?”
“Pretty much.”
“But you wouldn’t believe even if you did, would you?”
“Probably not.”
“You’re a douche bag,” she said finally, after pausing for a minute to consider the advantages of continuing to argue with me. I’d long ago reached the conclusion that I was full of shit, but abandoned the opinion because I didn’t have full confidence in my judgment. I’d once bought a Dean Koontz book. I know; I’m not proud.
“That,” I said, “I can believe.”
She looked at me sternly for about a minute or so before bursting into laughter. Herman was in the other room pecking away at his typewriter when we heard the music coming from just down the road. It was a bit loud, though muffled, and it seemed to be coming from a small playground up the road. It was a typical small-town playground: there was a slide, merry-go-round, and a couple of basketball hoops for the other kids.
“We’re going out for a while, Herman,” I yelled into the other room.
“Alright buddy,” he shouted back, “Can you bring me some snuff?”
“I sure can,” I yelled, “Elizabeth’s coming with me.”
He rushed into the room. He was wearing a stained, wrinkled tank-top, brown trousers, and black church socks. He looked up at me sadly. I was at least two feet taller than the man.
“Where are you going?” he asked hurriedly, “How long will you be gone?”
“Just long enough to pick up your snuff and get me some cigarettes,” I said, digging into my pockets for my lighter. I hoped it hadn’t fell under the coffee tin; I liked that lighter and had just paid a sound dollar for it.
“Ok,” he said. His face had flushed a whitish color with small patches of red high on his cheeks. His hair didn’t have its usual flair and comb-over, I noticed. Writing had kept him from looking his best, I thought, but then again – the man always had a smell to him. Not that it was overly offensive, but it was present. Even for me when I couldn’t, due to an accident, smell much of anything. After a while, Herman’s odor had its own, quaint charm. Kind of like his musty, dank house.
“Ok, so where are you going when you get back from the store? Here, right? You’re coming back here, aren’t you? We can play some guitar later, if you have the chance. I’ve got a video I want to show you, too. So, just come by when you get back from the video store.”
“We’ll do that,” I said, “We’ll do that.”
He looked over at Elizabeth as she was getting her purse and then shot a glance back over to me. He looked at me, and her, me, and her again. Finally, I said, “Look dude, she’s not that blind.”
He forced a tired laugh and ran off back to the bedroom.
The music was louder when we stepped outside. Indeed it sounded as though it was coming from just up the road, near the playground, so we made off towards it. I turned back around and looked towards Herman’s house. He was staring out the window, peaking through one of the blinds.
“What does that sound like to you?” I asked her, staying close enough to her where she could make her way up the loose-gravel road beside me.
“It sounds kind of like one of those songs you hear in a music box,” she replied, walking a bit faster to keep up with me.
“Yeah,” I said, “It kind of does.”
We walked on for a bit in silence. The playground, as usual, was empty; but the merry-go-round was spinning in the wind as though a few invisible kids were on it. A cool, southern wind was throwing the sand around as we stepped into one of the sand boxes.
“It’s coming from under here,” I said, kneeling down in one of the turtle-shaped sandboxes, “I’m certain of it.”
She knelt down beside me, putting her ear to the ground. She was quiet for a moment as she listened.
“Yeah,” she said, “It’s coming from under here.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw an object move, but when I turned to meet it – it was gone.
Suddenly, as though forced to, I began to scratch away at the sand, digging further down into the sandbox. The more dirt I heaped out, the louder the sound got. The sound was unmistakable: it was the sound of an ancient music box, or jewelry box. Elizabeth, noticing my enthusiasm, began to help me dig.
After digging for a few minutes, I stuck my hand down into the sand and knocked it up against something a lot harder than sand. It was wood. Together we brushed off the remaining sand, stood outside of the box while I, after taking off my shirt, fanned the rest of it off.
There was a small, wooden trap door under the sandbox. It had a golden handle on it. We climbed back over into the box and knelt down. I put my ear to the door and listened for a moment. It was getting louder and, now, there were muffled voices to be heard as well.
I rose up and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Herman could no longer see us, I knew, but I didn’t want anyone to catch me playing in a giant turtle sandbox.
Elizabeth rubbed her hands along the sagging, tired wood of the door. She reached out to grab the handle, and shuddered, jerking her hand back.
“Is it hot?” I asked, taking her hand into mine.
“No,” she said, “It’s freezing.” She held her hand up and in it was the imprint of the door handle. In a red, white lined circle cut in her skin.
I looked at her as a wearied expression crossed her face.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” she said after a pause, “I’m scared.”
“What’s there to be scared of?” I asked, “It’s just a door.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” she snapped back, “You don’t believe in anything. How can you be afraid?”
“That’s exactly why I’m afraid, Elizabeth,” I said, “The world is a lot more terrifying when you don’t believe anything is there to save you. No karma, no god, no guidance counselor. I’d rather have a god, however, than a guidance counselor.”
“Why do you have to say such silly shit?” she asked, “What has made you so fucking detached to everything?”
“Growing up in an orphanage might have helped.”
“Why did you grow up in an orphanage?” she asked after a pause.
“If there’s one thing I don’t want,” I said, “it’s your phony fucking sympathy. I’ve dealt with whatever it is I have to deal with, and all I can’t deal with is the fake
‘I’m sorry’ bullshit and feigned interest. It doesn’t make me feel better to talk about it; in fact, I’ve tried to blur it out as much as possible.”
“No,” she said, “I really want to know.”
“Promise me,” I said, “that you really don’t give a shit, and I’ll tell you.”
“I promise you I really don’t give a shit.”
“Aw,” I said, and turned away, refusing to look back at her cold, worthless eyes.
“Why did you grow up in an orphanage, Thomas?”
“Because my mother got pregnant with me when she was fifteen and cared a lot more for what went into her vagina than what came out of it. My grandfather lost his fucking mind, and demanded she give the child up for adoption. My real dad didn’t even show up for the delivery. Wouldn’t have mattered if he did, anyway. My grandfather made sure he’d never be allowed to see me. During the pregnancy, my mother did cocaine, smoked pot, watched Jerry Springer; anything she could do to try to make her life easier, to make the weight lessen. Sadly, I was born anyway. My grandfather put her into rehab and me into an orphanage until she was clean. After five years and no sobriety, he adopted me and I moved in with my grandparents. I grew up, as most kids do, and learned to blame all of my problems on my mother for caring more about getting drunk and sucking dick than about raising a child.”
“That’s harsh,” she said after a long pause. We sat for a minute, listening to wind whip the sand about at our feet. There was a small group of birds playing on the slide top, singing songs and looking for new cars to shit on.
“So,” she said, “you look at God as you look at your father?”
“You’re talking about the name of the father complex? Being an orphan has nothing to do with being agnostic.”
‘Of course it does,” she said, “You see God as you saw your dad all those years. You knew, for a little while at least, that he was there. But, just because he was there, didn’t mean he cared. Then you stopped thinking he existed at all. So you view the world as you view your father.”
I didn’t answer her for a while, instead watched the small family of birds play about the air, jumping from one power line to another.
“All I remember,” I said after a while, “are the colors. The breakfast hall had a long, dark burgundy floor and white walls. That’s all I remember.”
She ran her silk colored fingers along the dark colored wood of the door. The wind had tossed some sand back on top of it, and I blew it off and grabbed at the handle. Just like Elizabeth, I jerked my hand away at first, as soon as I touched it.
I had never felt something so cold. And I once dated a catholic.
After a moment I grabbed it again and this time, at least, I was able to hold it long enough to feel my heart slam against my chest.
“Open it,” she said, “Don’t worry.”
“What if this is like some pied piper shit?” I asked, holding onto the cold handle tightly, “They play this music, pretty music, and we come following it up the road, over the meadow, and through the woods and right into some sort of fucked up medieval dungeon of torture? That dude fucked those rats up.”
Elizabeth laughed and pulled her shining hair behind her ears.
“If there’s a dude down there with a flute,” she said, “We’ll kick his ass.”
I smiled and swallowed, closed my eyes, and turned the knob.
Book 3
Chapter 1
The Radiator’s Song

“Weren’t we just inside some sort of mill?” asked Anne, looking up at the lavender curls of white that webbed the sky of amber, as a chariot shaped out of clouds drifted overhead.
“We definitely weren’t here,” Elijah said, walking over to Anne on his hands.
“Why the fuck are you walking on your hands!” Anne shouted at him.
“I don’t know, god damn it!” he screamed back, “I woke up like this!”
Anne started to say something but, after thinking about it for a moment, reconsidered. Aaron walked up beside her and smiled.
“For some reason,” he said, “I’ve got four arms.”
“Where the hell did you get the other arms?” she asked him.
“The flea market!” he shouted in jest, “Fuck, I don’t know. Where can you buy arms, anyway?”
Elijah chuckled and lost his balance, sprawling out on his face against the soft, putty-like surface.
“Hey, Aaron,” he said, exasperated, “Can you give me a hand? Ha!”
“How about you,” Aaron said, looking down at him, “have my ass for lunch?”
“And for desert?”
“Just shut up.”
Anne looked out across the horizon. The curling, wisps of clouds played in and about one another, just atop the jagged mountains shooting upwards not far off in the distance.
“I don’t know where we’re at,” she said after a while, “but I don’t like it. I’d rather be in the mill.”
“But you were terrified in the mill,” Elijah said, climbing back to his hands, “Why would you want to go back there?”
“Well,” Anne said, “I was afraid, but at least I knew where I was. Here nothing seems to be too ominous. For some reason, I’m more afraid here than I was there, and there I knew I was in danger.”
“It’s probably the colors,” said Aaron, “Wretch comes to mind.”
“Aaron,” said Anne, running over to him, “Do you have your cup? Shake it and see if anything comes out.”
He dug down in his jacket and found nothing; then he dug around a bit in Elijah’s bag. “Nothing there,” he said, “but I’m sure I had it just a minute ago. It’s gone for some reason.”
“And another thing,” Elijah intoned, trying to scratch his chin with his leg,
“Wasn’t there another person with us? He didn’t say much, you know? Just carried around a diary all the time? Always wrote shit and wouldn’t tell us about it?”
“Not that I remember,” Anne said, as the three walked down the small slope down into a valley of fruits and foliage. Off in the distance they saw a man, presumably a man that is, stomping towards them angrily.
“Maybe he can give us some directions,” Aaron said.
“Or something useful,” Elijah whispered to Anne, “like a cigarette or some tea.” Coming up on the man they stopped just shy of him. He was smoking a pipe and wearing a long, brown trench coat. His pants were a darker brown and his shoes were light beige. Elijah tried to shake his hand and fell. After a moment he felt the absurdity of the situation, and shtick.
“Pardon me, sir,” said Anne, “But, we’re kind of lost. Can you tell us where we are?”
“Perhaps I could be persuaded by a bit of information,” the man said, “There is a distinct possibility your party might possess, Mesdames,” the man said jovially, puffing on a pipe.
“I’m not going to fuck you,” Anne said curtly.
Elijah, from the ground, yelled up at him, “Tell her she’s cute first!” Anne kicked him in the chin and he spun over, laughing wildly.
“What do you mean, kind woman? Never did I dare to utter such vulgar sentiments upon first having made the austere pleasure of your acquaintance,” the man said in a rapid, articulate voice, and bowed before her.
“This guy really needs some pussy,” Elijah said. Anne kicked him again. He laughed even harder.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “But, we kind of just ended up here. You see, my friend here is walking on his hands, my other friend is plus two in the arms department, and I appear to have fuller breasts.”
“They certainly are quite ravishing,” said the man, holding up a monocle to lean forward and better observe. Anne blushed and backed away a bit.
“What can I help you with?” she asked finally.
“I was wondering,” the man began in his rapid, articulate voice, “if perhaps I might trouble you as much to inquire if you’ve seen a man, for whom I’ve been looking for quite sometime. I’ve been wandering here for what seem like ages. This place is insane,” he went on, seemingly depressed, “People come and go, disappear and the like, but one man I have, as of yet, regretfully been unable to find in my travels here.”
“What’s his name?” she asked.
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” he said, “There are some questions I need to ask him.”
“Why is that?” Anne asked with genuine interest.
“He is my creator,” said the man, “My name is Sherlock.”
“No shit?” asked Elijah, howling with laughter.
“Every time I run into someone,” he said, “they say that. I’m frankly getting downright sick of it.”
He crossed his arms.
“Dude!” Elijah yelled, “Aaron is scratching his ass and his head at the same time! That is exactly what I’d do with four arms.”
Aaron looked about, embarrassed, “What!” he shouted, getting back to his scratching.
“I certainly haven’t seen him, sir,” she said after thinking it over, “but, if I do run into him, is there anything you’d like me to tell him?”
“Yes,” said the man, “Tell him that I’ve been trying to call, but I keep getting a strangely familiar man on the phone. Either that or my quarters don’t work.”
The man headed off towards a staggering mass of crooked trees wrapped round a swamp towards the south.
“Where do we go now?” asked Anne, looking towards a high hill wrapped in sails of silver clouds. There was a small metal object on top of it.
“Let’s just go see whatever that is,” said Elijah, who now walked upright like a normal bipedal ape descendant.
Behind them Aaron shrugged, throwing Elijah’s bag over his shoulder. Inside it he heard a muffled voice, but tried to pay no attention to it.
A small, blue tinged river wrapped around the bushes to the side of the high hill.
A large and serpent like figure splashed about in the water and in zigzags swam towards them, up to the shore, stopped and to them spoke, “Do you have anything to eat?” the large, looming figure asked with puffs of fire spewing from his large, green mouth.
“Give him all of that chicken broth,” Elijah said, “Nobody wants chicken flavored liquid.”
Aaron dug down into Elijah’s bag and threw him one of the small cans of chicken broth.
“So,” said Elijah sarcastically, “you’re some sort of dragon?”
“Yes,” said the dragon with pride, sending out a tuft of fire wrapped in smoke,
“You can call me puff.”
“Well,” Elijah said, “a big pussy dragon named Puff. That’s normal.”
The dragon splashed up from the water and pulled out a small pistol.
“Alright!” he shouted, “Give me your wallets. You, with the four arms, give me what’s in the bag!”
“Don’t give me that shit!” Elijah shouted, “We’re not going to be ordered about by some fruity dragon. Why don’t you run back to Honah Lee and hang out with that little Jackie Paper douche bag?”
The dragon fell to his knees and plunged his face into his hands. “He hasn’t came to see me in years!” he sobbed, “I just want to take him on a magical adventure, and he won’t even return my calls.”
“Do dragons have a working long distance plan?” asked Aaron.
“The payments are fine,” said Puff, “but the signal is rarely ever clear.”
“What the hell is a long distance plan?” Elijah asked.
“I really don’t know,” said Aaron, “I’ve never had to console a dragon before.”
“Look,” said Anne, draping her long, slender arm over his scaly shoulders, “go get yourself fixed up. Find some slacks, maybe a business shirt, and you can work your way back into society. You don’t have to resort to robbery so soon, you know.”
“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” cried Puff with trails of smoke drifting out of his nostrils, “I just want to end it all. I’ve been swimming in that little river there for at least thirty years. My only company is a ridiculous Englishman that comes down to the shore and feeds me bread, asking me if I’ve seen some Mr. Doyle.”
He took the pistol and stuck it to his head. Elijah laughed uncontrollably.
“Don’t do it!” Anne cried out, running up to him. He pointed the gun at her and screamed, “Back up! I’m not fucking around!”
“Hey!” screamed Elijah, “Watch your language!”
“Calm down,” Anne said, “and give me the gun. You don’t want to do this. You’ve got lots to live for. You have a cute little pool to swim in.”
“I’ve been pissing and shitting in that pool for decades!” cried Puff and sobbed, putting the gun to his side. Elijah was laughing hysterically. Sighing, he flung the gun back into the water.
“That’s it,” said Anne, “Just take a deep breath and relax.”
Puff nodded and wiped his tears away. He took a small bottle of pills out of a fanny pack.
“Got them from that Englishman,” he said, “He offered me some other stuff, but it makes my nose bleed.”
“Do they help?” asked Anne.
“Eh,” he said, “They give me more energy.”
“Good! Just swim around for a while,” she continued, “and you’ll feel better.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Puff said, “Nobody talks to me anymore.”
“You could thank us,” said Elijah, “by not blowing fire in our faces when you talk. I mean, shit, you’re cute and all, but I don’t like having my face set on fire.”
“Understood,” said Puff. He hopped back in the water, still sobbing uncontrollably, and swam off towards the orange crescent bobbing in the sky.
“Alright,” said Anne. After a minute, she asked Aaron, who knelt before Elijah’s box, “Is anyone else as confused as I am?”
“Anne,” Aaron said, “We’re talking to a fictional character.”
High up on the high hill they saw tiny spirals of smoke dancing upward as again the silver chariot passed overhead.
“I guess,” she said, “We’ll climb the hill.”
“What about your mirror?” asked Elijah, “Tap it, and see if you can talk to that replica of mine.”
“You’re a replica of him,” she snapped back, “but I’ll try.”
Anne reached into her pocket and pulled out the shard of glass. The glass was clear, and only her reflection stared back. She sighed, sticking it back into her pocket. Together they walked up towards the top of the hill.
At the top of the hill there was a small, rusted, and smoking radiator. It was quietly humming the same melody of the dead man’s music box, which had burnt into Anne’s mind, making her shudder when she heard it. At the bottom of the hill there was a large, broad-shouldered fairy with a five o’clock shadow wrapped around his chin. His pink tutu was stretched and haggard; the wings on it folded down lifelessly.
Elijah walked up to the mourning fairy and waved his arms.
“Hello?” he said, kneeling in front of the man.
“Hello,” the fairy said in a deep, baritone voice, dripping with melancholy and depression. He sighed.
“My name is Anne,” Anne said, extending her hand.
He ignored her. A minute later he looked up at her. His eyes were strained and bloodshot. In his left hand he had a half-empty bottle of bourbon. He swigged at it caustically.
“So,” Elijah said, “What is it you do here?”
“Nothing,” the man said, “Nothing anymore, that is. I don’t really have a job. Been stayin’ with my mom a lot lately. Been workin’ part time for the radiator.”
“You work for a radiator?” Elijah asked.
“Shit,” the fairy replied with a sigh, “Affirmative action. I liked my old job a lot more.”
“Where did you used to work?” Elijah asked him. Anne looked over at Aaron and smiled.
“I used to be a tooth fairy,” he said, “but lately, I’m havin’ trouble makin’ the ends meet.” He took another huge gulp of bourbon.
“I’ve been looking for work,” said the fairy, “It’s a tough market out there.”
“You could always put in for another sort of job,” Anne said, “You know, I’m sure there’s something else they could find for a fairy of your prestige to do. At least, the very least, you could get an office job.”
“I’ve put in thousands of applications,” he said, “Even tried out for a Kibbles N Bits commercial,” he paused, sobbing, “I didn’t even get a call back.”
“That’s horrible,” Anne said, patting him on the shoulder as he sobbed, “Who’s my big brave boy?”
“I am,” he said.
He finished the bottle of bourbon and threw it over his shoulder. It shattered on the other side of the hill.
“These wings ain’t what they used to be,” the fairy said somberly, “I guess I’m just washed up.”
“There, there,” said Anne.
“You’ve got an appointment with the radiator at the top of the hill,” said the fairy, his broad, hairy chest covered in sweat.
They stood around for a moment staring at him.
“Leave!” he shouted; they left. The fairy looked around in one direction, then another, and then took out another bottle of bourbon as they walked up towards the radiator.
“Where we are now,” said the radiator in a hollow, tin-like rattle, “Is a place where all the characters go once their story is done. When the book is done, finished, and closed, we all come here. When the book opens up, they disappear again. But here they’re doomed to an eternity of servitude. There have been lots of disappearances here, as well as in your plane of existence.”
“You’re unequivocally, outrageously, and unfathomably full of shit,” Elijah said to the radiator. A moment later he lit a cigarette, and added, “Why am I even talking to a radiator?”
“Oh?” said the radiator with a puff of smoke, “Whenever the man gets back to the story, you’ll find yourself where you were. There are doorways between world’s, however … and sometimes things tend to get a bit muddled.”
“That’s why I have four arms?” asked Aaron.
“Well, your character continues to change because of a peculiar illness. And right now, he has no idea where he put you. Once he figures it out, you’ll be back to wherever it is you were.”
“Thanks for the advice,” said Elijah sarcastically, “and I normally don’t put much esteem in the opinions of radiators. But you,” he laughed, “look like someone I can trust.”
“How long will we have to stay here on Fantasy Island?” asked Anne.
“Fantasy Island is about three hundred feet to the north,” said the radiator, and went back to his humming, sending out tiny tufts of grayish smoke.
“We’re having trouble with the wheel,” said the radiator, “The Janitors are cleaning it now – so be weary of anyone climbing out of holes in the ground. Things will be back to normal sooner or later. Later seems a lot more probable, however.”
In the distance under a willow tree, not far from a small goose-shaped cloud that fanned as it feathered by, a man yelled out to them.
“Elijah!” the man yelled in a familiar voice, “Just sit down and close your eyes; tell Anne and Aaron to do the same thing. I’m sure, positive, that we’ll be back to the mill in just a minute. You have my guarantee.”
The man held up Aaron’s Styrofoam cup and smiled, took from his back pocket a piece of paper. He placed it under the cup, setting it on fire, and closed the cup down around the flame.
The bird shaped clouds above the willow fluttered, flapping their whitish wings, and disappeared. Overhead the chariot, pulled by a giant horse with hollow eyes, ravaged through the amber sky, and in a blink Anne, beside Aaron and Elijah, opened her eyes and stood staring at the humming music box. The tiny ballerina inside it spun by and by slowly as it hummed.
Isaac, in the corner, laughed and held up a small notebook.
“Just a flower,” he said and laughed, “the night watchman, Elijah, must be asleep. He rings his bells, but doesn’t seem to care. There are maybe six rooms left in the mill, of this I’m sure, so we should be able to come out the other side after we have a rest. So, let’s get some shut-eye.”
He stepped through the webbed doorway, shook the silky spider webs from his tattered pants, and made his way towards a stack of papers in the corner. Anne followed him. Elijah looked at Aaron and grinned. “I’ll bet you half a vial that she’ll give him some.”
“Why do you think she’s such a whore?” Aaron asked crossly, highly aggravated with Elijah’s constant berating of Anne.
“Did she tell you how she came to be so subservient?” Elijah asked, fetching a tightly rolled cigarette from the pocket in his jeans, lit it up. He inhaled deeply and laughed, smoke drifted out of his nostrils as he chuckled.
“No,” Aaron said with color flushing to his face, “Where did you find her?”
Elijah grabbed Aaron by his ears, looked directly into his eyes, and drew his forehead to his own. With their foreheads touching, both sweaty and clammy, Elijah opened his mouth and laughed as loud as he could.
Aaron nodded shamefully, and took from under one of the four tables a long, frayed piece of dark red linen, covered in the remains of the long dead beetles and bugs. He lay down on his face and looked to the faint light spilling through the doorway. There were sounds of footsteps drifting down the hall outside the door, and through the night they heard the footsteps of the old mill workers that had suffocated inside the mill without their Digitalis.
From the craziness of the evening, Elijah, for the first time drifted off to sleep in minutes. Anne lay with her tangled hair against Isaac’s heavy chest, heaving as he struggled through the night to breathe. Anne felt along his arm as he hummed, as he always sung in his sleep, and fingered the edge of a deep scar that wrapped around his wrist. As they drifted into sleep they heard the loud, vacuum like noise of the grey waves that spilled both sides of the shore. In front of Mike’s shop and at the gaping mouth – the passage into the winding maze. Out in front set four statues, as they already knew from the people that wandered in and out of Roma’s, and behind each statue laid four passageways through the deep, tangled and dying leaves that kept the snow lined passage through.
Anne couldn’t sleep. From the corner she stood and walked towards one of the four tables once again, once again opening up the music box. She stared at it for a while, remembering her life before every day was filled with long grey nights and longer grey days.
The footsteps echoed down the empty corridor. Anne shuddered when she heard their hollow sound, thinking of all the men that had vanished, drowned away in the lolling waves of the Vanishing Rivers. Inside her head she saw the Piles – the huge masses of useless commodities, toothbrushes and shaving cream. Everybody knew the souls of those sent to the bottomless rivers were recycled, sent to the mills to continue working the ragged sewing machines. They never moved when people passed through, but you could always, especially in the darkest of the depths of night, hear them churn along.
She tried to think of how things would be once she got to Ra’s Patio. All she saw was a lake at night, with the bright moon reflecting in the dark blue waters. Lightning bugs would light up the night as she sat by the shore. Hopefully, as she thought, behind the long hallways and long mirrors lining the long entrance into paradise, she’d be beyond the control of anything. Of the Digitalis, of whatever force it was that pushed her on.
Elijah in his sleep fell to his knees again before the giant podium. Behind the giant podium the accuser loomed. Her glasses had slid down her nose a bit as she looked down at Elijah.
“So!” shouted the woman, “It is the murderer back to plead his innocence! No doubt by some delusion this man believes himself to entirely innocent of all crimes.”
“How do you condemn me?” Elijah asked, on his knees, “I had to eat,” he stopped short as the heads of the jurors reclined, “How was I going to eat? I would’ve starved.”
The jurors slung their head backs and the loud clicking noise came loudly.
“You have to believe me,” she shouted, “I just did what I had to do. It’s how I was made; it’s not my fault. Do you blame the robot with the knife in his teeth or the man that put him together? It’s not my fault; I just did what I had to do.”
In the corner was the locked door with its foreign combination lock. Elijah looked over at it mournfully, closing his eyes.
Chapter 2
The Make Believe Ballroom

The door was locked. Elizabeth shrugged with disappointed, climbing to her feet. I followed her back towards Herman’s house. We were silent all the way until we got to his porch.
“Can you pick that lock?” she asked me as we walked onto Herman’s porch.
“I’ll try after I leave from down here tonight. I want to make sure Herman is alright; he seemed disappointed that you left with me.”
“He’s been trying to have sex with me,” said Elizabeth, “he always pinches my ass and tries to get me to lay down with him.”
“That’s absurd,” I said, almost shouting, “There’s no way I’m going to believe that.”
“And when you’re not here, he drinks. When he drinks, he always tries to pull down my shirt. That’s why he keeps orange juice,” she went on, “It’s for the vodka he keeps behind his radiator.”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” I said, “I wonder if he’ll be mad that we forgot to bring him snuff.”
“He probably won’t remember telling us,” said Elizabeth, “Have you read his story?”
“Digitalis?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, “I’ve noticed that he never remembers where his characters are. In fact, I think he’s going to kill them all.”
“What are we going to be able to do about it?”
“He wants to have them die inside the maze, I think,” she said, “But we’re going to guide them through it and make sure they make it to Ra’s Patio. There, they won’t be under his control.”
“I thought you said that Ra’s Patio didn’t exist, and that they were just dedicating their lives to live out some fairytale as the world goes to shit around them.”
“Ra’s Patio doesn’t exist,” she said, “but we can make it exist. We can’t get them there, out of his control, without keeping within close contact with Anne and Elijah. When they come out of the mill, if Herman remembers, I’m going to send them a phone booth so they can contact us. We’ll talk to Herman about what’s going to happen, and we can let them know what to watch out for.”
“That makes absolutely no sense,” I said, “As crazy as this world is; however, I guess I’ll have to accept that.”
“I wonder what’s under that door,” she said as we walked into Herman’s house.
“I hope it’s a convenience store,” I replied, “I’m almost out of cigarettes.”
“That’s Digitalis,” said Elizabeth, “Whatever you depend on, need, rely on to live – that’s Digitalis.”
“Smoking is a bit different than removing your palm, planting some sort of mechanical contraption in it, a vial, and then pumping a thick black liquid into it just to be able to breathe.”
“Oh yeah?” she replied sarcastically, “Then, what about your medicine at your house?”
“Medicine I take for nerves,” I said, “It’s not the same.”
She shook her head and we walked into Herman’s room. He was asleep, face down on a stack of papers by his lamp. Beside his desk was a glass with a small bit of orange juice left in it.
“Get his story,” I said, “and make sure the phone booth is waiting on them when they get out of the mill.”
She tip-toed into the dark of his room, navigating remarkably for being almost legally blind, and took a stack of his disheveled papers. Together we snuck back into the living room, sat down, and she, on the back of the last piece of paper, wrote:
Just outside the ruins of the mill, not far away, something appeared out in the dark. It was closely seven feet in height.
She handed it to me and I dug in my pocket for a lighter. After I found it, I folded the paper into the same origami flowered and lifted up the coffee tin.
Under the coffee tin, there was a small, golden key. Around the top of it was the shape of a moth. I held it up to look at it closely. The moth’s wings were draped down. Elizabeth squinted in the dim light of Herman’s living room.
“Do you think that’s for what I think that’s for?” she asked me after a couple of minutes.
“To the door under the sandbox?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Let’s go try it.”
I placed the origami flower under the coffee tin and set it on fire. Together, me and Elizabeth made our way out of the apartment quietly. We didn’t want to wake Herman up. Deep and thick bags were gathering under his eyes due to the stress of writing.
The wind was blowing harder as we stepped out onto the harsh, humid blacktop.
There were a few kids walking away from the merry-go-round when we knelt down in the sand box. I took the key from my pocket and slid it into the locked door. It turned with ease and the heavy door gave way. Elizabeth reached out to grab the knob, shuddered when she felt the cold metal. I grabbed the golden handle and pulled the door open. It creaked loudly as I peered down into the black, seemingly endless hole leading down into the doorway.
“So,” I said and laughed, “Ladies first.”
Elizabeth laughed and stuck her feet down into the dark, gaping hole, left foot first and then the right.
“I hear music,” she said, disappearing down into the dark. There was a distinct smell of dust and tepid water, and the sound of Elizabeth’s feet clanging down a steel ladder rang out as I slipped inside the door.
There was a small band playing somewhere far up under us. Trumpets playing delicate arpeggios, saxophones soloing, and the smooth, clear lines of a bass filled the tunnel as we climbed down.
After twenty or so steps, Elizabeth clambered onto a cold, checkered floor. I dropped down beside her and struck a match.
I held the match up and looked up the tunnel we’d climbed from; the other side of the door looked the same, and behind us was a heavy, sliding mahogany door with a slit-like peep-hole. A bit of light from the lively room spilled through the hole, casting a mask-like glow over Elizabeth’s grayish, listless staring eyes. Down at the bottom of the stairs it seemed as though she could see again. Together, we peered into the room.
On the other side we saw a grand, elegant ballroom. The floor was made of dazzling glass, and above a chandelier cast light on all the set tables, stage, and buffet table. The sound of the music was louder when we crept through the door quietly.
There was no one in the room, but we heard the footfalls cross the glass, and the trumpet – sitting lifeless on a grand piano – was loud and lively though no one held or played it.
“Well, what do you make of this? Believe in this?” Elizabeth asked, as we pulled up a chair at one of the cloth-covered tables, sat down.
“This must be some sort of hallucination,” I repeated to myself aloud, refusing to acknowledge the steady beat of the invisible band.
“It must be a terrible life,” said Elizabeth, picking up a wine glass.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“A life without any sense of wonder must be terrible. A life with such little to believe in, I don’t see how you even get by. Would it hurt to at least allow the probability that there are things in the world you can’t understand?”
“With a Euclidian mind,” I said, watching a wine glass fill itself beside me, “I refuse to acknowledge there is anything unknowable to human beings. There are three dimensions, senses, and that’s it.”
“Where are we?” she asked, staring at me with her now lively, brown veiled eyes.
“In some sort of empty ballroom,” I said. “I imagine it must’ve been part of some buried civilization. We just happened to find it.”
“And the music that led us here?”
“Some kids must have found this place and dropped a radio down here. We just happened to stumble upon it.”
“You go to great lengths to weave such bullshit,” she said, drinking from the full wine glass, “Why can’t you just look at things as they are, instead of how you prefer them to be?”
“What do you want me to say?” I almost shouted, “I have no idea where we’re at. We heard music; we followed it, and we found a door in a sandbox. What am I supposed to make of this? How am I supposed to rationalize this? This isn’t logical. It’s stupid. It’s some sort of puerile fantasy of mine that I’ve created.”
“They told you that at the Psych Ward?” she asked, draining her wine glass.
“They put me in a room by myself. There was a color code that I never cared for.”
“A color code?” she asked, genuinely concerned.
“Yes,” I began, “At twelve, we got to go out into the main hall. I was a color red; a color red never gets to choose what to watch on the television in the lunchroom. The color greens, usually people that were too medicated to act up to begin with, always chose Inspector Gadget.”
“Why did you go there to begin with?”
I sighed and lifted up my shirt.
“Those scars,” she said, “I saw them the other day. What happened to you, Thomas?”
“One night I was alone in my room. I was always alone after I graduated, and so I boarded up my windows and barricaded my door.”
“Why did you do that?” she asked softly, her voice as calm as velvet.
“I was afraid all the time of what might happen.”
“What happened?”
“One night I was in my room playing my old piano, and I heard thunder rattle the window. A piece of the board slid down, and a tiny bit of light shone in the room. When the light settled, it settled on a music box in my corner. There were bugs in it. And they tried to get in my mouth.” She stared back at me silently.
“They came across the floor, and I fell up against my bed. Some crawled in my mouth and I started screaming, gagging, and some started crawling in my belly button, in my ears. When my aunt kicked down my door, I had a knife in my stomach trying to get them out of my belly button.
“So, they sent me to the Rubber Hole in Columbia. They taught me that everything I didn’t understand was a product of my imagination. They systematically taught me not to imagine anything, or believe in anything really.”
“That’s awful,” she said, “Inspector Gadget… I’m sorry you had to go through that. Cutting open your stomach, hallucinogenic nightmares, and paranoid delusions I can understand. But Inspect Gadget? I had no idea, Thomas. I wish there was something I could do.”
On the stage the sound of a microphone blared, and we turned out heads to face it. A shadow crept down from the tasseled window seal and slinked up to the microphone. The upbeat jazz music dwindled out, and the shadow said into the microphone:
“We’re experiencing some technical difficulties.”
There was a small smattering of applause around us as the shadow took the form of a butler looking Englishman.
The empty, well set tables came to life and well dressed patrons sat clapping. A man in a white tuxedo came to our table, sat down a bottle of Romanée St-Vivant Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
“Compliments of the gentleman across the way,” said the man and walked away. Under a well drawn window-seal, sat a distinguished gentleman smoking a cigarette. He tipped his hat to me and smiled. From outside the window a breeze sent the curtains waving delicately.
Elizabeth sat across from me and smiled. Her hair was up and primped, silk-like black curls draped above her pearl colored face. Her lips were a light shade of pastel pink. Long black formal gloves clung to her slender arms, and she had on a beautiful silk brocade. She smiled, holding up a wine glass.
“You look great,” she said, holding up her wine glass.
Looking down I noticed I was wearing a long black sleeve, with white cuffs hanging out the ends.
“How can you see me?” I asked.
“Over the last couple of days, my eyesight has been getting better. Now, I can almost see as well as I could before the accident.”
“What changed?”
“The night we got the first phone call, you know, from that angry Englishman? And when the glass shattered…” she stopped suddenly and reached down into a hanging purse slung from her long, elegant neck.
She took out the small shard of glass and looked down into it. It was blank, save for her reflection staring back at her. Behind her reflection, she saw a cloud- shaped chariot pass behind her and wink out in the low, amber colored atmosphere behind her face.
“It’s blank,” she said, putting it back down into her purse, “but if we don’t get back, Herman will think we’re seeing each other.”
The gentleman across the way, surrounded by a perfumed cloud of smoke, kept staring over at our table. The jazz band was getting lively, and a small crowd of people were entering through the door we came through.
Now the entire ballroom was engaged in laughter and drink, lively conversation and bouts of laughter by a large parasol, surrounded by a crest of well-pruned African Violets. The tireless jazz band had started another upbeat number when the same addressee as before walked back up to the microphone.
“There has been a snip,” he said as a hush fell over the personages. “Whenever we get this sorted out, you’ll all be able to go back to where you were before you came here. Some might end up on another side of the world,” he pointed to a short, dark skinned man in a black, gold trimmed smock, “and some of you,” he continued, “can just go back to your homes and continue as you were.”
To another bit of applause, the man sauntered off the stage and the band picked back up.
At a table in front of me, a large, heavyset man with broad shoulders turned to face me.
“Your name is Thomas, right?” said the man, sliding out the elegant chair behind him, walking over towards me and Elizabeth. She finished her glass of wine and filled up another.
“Yes,” I said. “How do you know my name?”
“We’re both part of the same story,” said the man with a smile. “You know me, however, as a hummingbird.”
Elizabeth hovered above her wine glass, lighting a cigarette. A thick wall of smoke surrounded the tables.
“Mike?” I asked, “You knew Herman?”
“Know him?” he jested, “We’re involved in much the way that you and him and this ravishing young girl are.” He laughed loudly and pulled up a chair at our table. I moved some of the empty silverware, plates, napkins, inviting him to sit down.
“So, why did we end up here to begin with?” I asked.
“There’s been a delay in the manuscript,” he began, running his young hands through his hair, “As soon as it’s straightened out, you’ll be able to go back to the apartment.”
“This is stupid,” I yelled over to him. The gentleman across the way nodded towards me, calling over a waiter to refill his glass. A sly smile formed across his face.
“Something similar,” said Mike, “happened on the other side. Herman lost track of the story, so they went to a place called Amber’s Chariot. It’s full of … fictional characters that have disappeared. They go to the Chariot, and you come to the Make Believe Ballroom.”
“Why the symmetry?” I asked, “Why do our actions mirror theirs?”
“Herman’s double has a diary, in it there’s a story being written entitled Just a Flower. It tells of your world as though it was fiction as does Herman’s Digitalis.
They’re mirrors of each other, like sides. However, the situation could get more complicated. Especially if you drop that piece of mirror that carry around.”
“God forbid,” I said sarcastically.
“You’ve seen your face in the mirror,” Mike said, leaning down, “Right?”
“Sadly,” I said.
“Do you know what happens when your reflection turns around like you do?”
“Goes out for ice cream?”
“It turns around and walks into a world the opposite of yours. You’re left handed, right?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I can jerk off with either.”
“Your double is right handed; that is one of the more common of situations.
Something, however, made the connection to that side possible.”
“The golden moth, wasn’t it?” asked Elizabeth.
“Yes,” said Mike, “When it got into the snow globe, he only needed to wait until something released him.”
“Herman’s repetition,” I said.
“Yes, and the mirror to the other side split, and the golden moth escaped. The only way to close the link is to catch the moth and put it under the coffee tin at the same time that your doubles put the other moth under their Styrofoam cup.”
“How can we catch the moth?” I asked, “With cheese or some kind of little rat trap?”
“Elizabeth has to play Mendelssohn’s War March of the Priests at fifteen after ten. When they get near the end of the maze, you’ll know when to play it. The one you talk to through the mirror has a book with the instructions in it. The book tells her how to catch the moth and how to contact you with the phone booth. Once they catch it, put it in the cup, and shake it – the link will sever and you’ll no longer be under the Omnipotent Author’s control. And on the other side, you’ll help them through the maze.”
“And if they don’t make it through?” asked Elizabeth, obviously concerned.
“If you allow them to remain under Herman’s control, they’ll all die. You’ll be able to tell them beforehand how to survive.”
Mike extended his hand, his long, slender fingers groping for my hand, shook it, and then rose from his chair. He folded his napkin, bowed before Elizabeth, and walked towards the exit across the shining floor.
We sat there for a minute in silence, listening to the jazz band, and watching people file in and out. The women had fur scarves around their necks and pearl earrings and long, elegant dresses. A cordial man stood by the door to take their coats, usher them to their seats.
In the floral corner the man smiled a broad, shining smile. He looked familiar. He reminded me distinctly of my uncle. At a table in front of him, a man that looked extraordinarily like Hitler sat drinking champagne.
Everybody in the ballroom looked familiar, wearing the faces of famous figures drug out of history. There was Gandhi towards the back sipping at a large martini, and not far from him sat Martin Luther King, looking over the menu sternly. Gandhi was holding up his hands, his index fingers touching, with his thumbs in the air. A young woman in a sati sat opposite, holding a paper football. Above us the chandelier flickered on and then off, and all the people disappeared. Their voices, laughter, and clanking of forks and spoons and champagne glasses remained loud. The invisible jazz band played on as the light drained from the place, enveloping the ballroom in dark.
A young girl and young boy came up behind me. The young girl put her hand on my shoulder.
“Thomas,” she said, “This is where people go when they disappear. Tell Herman that.”
“Who might I say sends the message?’
“Tell him Joe and Jane,” the young boy said, “We’re his children.”
“Why can’t you tell him yourself?”
“Because we died from food poisoning almost six years ago. He still thinks we’re alive, though, but he doesn’t remember our faces or our names.”
“You want me to tell them they go to an underground ballroom? That’s ridiculous; he’ll never believe it.”
“Yes,” they said in chorus, “It’s ridiculous, and that means he’ll surely believe it. He’ll believe anything as long as it’s fantastical. Have you seen the books and drawings under his bed?”
“If you’re dead,” I said, “How do you know they’re still there?”
“We’re dead as people,” said Jane, “but we’ve been recycled.”
“Recycled?” Anne asked in her typical curiosity.
“We’re here, but we’re out there too.”
“And that means?” I asked.
“Mike over there watches Herman, and still lives with him,” the said.
“You’re telling me that Mike was reborn as a hummingbird?” I asked sarcastically. “Sure,” I said, “That makes sense.”
“Truth doesn’t have to make sense,” said Elizabeth, looking at me sternly.
“Reborn is the wrong word. He wasn’t necessarily born again. He was recycled. The same captain controls the boat; the boat is just a lot smaller and less capable than it was.”
In the corner Gandhi jumped from his chair, shouted at the woman in front of him, and did a small dance around the table – much to the delight of the people around him. Winston Churchill, however, was about three tables away and about three cognacs from the floor. He scoffed at Gandhi, downing another glass.
“Couldn’t I be something else right now then?” I asked, lighting a cigarette.
“No,” said Joe and looked at Jane, “Right now there are some difficulties with the wheel. You’re both still alive, technically, but as of now there’s no where to go but here. This is the only place in the universe. There’s something wrong with the wheel.”
“Has God taken some time off? Is there a tear in the space time continuum? Is the fabric of time bent around a huge gravitational field slowing the flow of relative time, thus rendering things on earth in a form of stasis?”
“No,” said Joe, “We think there’s some gunk on it.”
Jane nodded, “We’ve called in a cleaning crew. As of now, we’re on schedule.”
“You’d think,” I said to Elizabeth, inhaling deeply, “That if this were the only place in all creation, they’d at least have a television.”
“We had a television,” said Joe, “It disappeared, and as of yet … we’ve yet to figure out where it actually went.”
“I hope you hurry,” I said, “A Red Dwarf marathon is coming on next week.”
“If you see any roaches around Herman’s kitchen,” said Jane as Joe walked away, “Please don’t step on them. Finding a new body is a risky business, and you can never be sure who it is you’re killing until you’re recycled. While you’re being recycled, you’ll come here. So, you’ll be able to choose. Oddly enough, right now Adolph Hitler an iguana with a stubby tail.”
His voice towards the end drawled into a static hiss and his faced crawled with zigzagging lines. The immortal jazz band’s upbeat swing dwindled out. Above us and the mirror, the chandelier flickered and went out.
The shadow walked up to the microphone and said, “The papers have been rearranged. Make sure you don’t forget the phone booth. Let us hope the Janitors don’t find out about this slight tiff, we’ll be up to our necks in paperwork.” After a hollow round of applause that echoed off the empty walls, all the room was quiet again, as dead as we had found it. Elizabeth’s normal clothes had returned. Sadly, my tawdry rags returned as well.
Together we rose and made our way back to the door. We were quiet until we were almost back up the ladder under the door.
We decided on Herman’s porch to figure out everything we could about his story.
In all honesty, I’d had too much excitement already. It was June and I was already crawling into doors under sandboxes, visiting absurd ballrooms, and hanging out with a manically depressed music instructor. I just wanted to get back to my house and get on with hating my normal, boring life. Of course I could resume my thoroughly enraging games of chess with my brother, or just settle down on my deck with my telescope, pack of cigarettes, pint of vodka – life could go back to its usual level of tediousness and repetition. Sometimes you go about enjoying yourself, you know, just dilly-dallying about, and life intervenes and forces you to live it. Terrible, I know, but it’s better than the alternative.
Chapter 3
A Million Roads to No Where

“What do you mean ‘I’m not guilty’?” Aaron asked as Elijah woke. Isaac was sitting up against a wall in the corner, writing in his diary with a strange smile on his face.
“I’ve been having these dreams for a while now,” Elijah said, thumping at the vial in his hand, sitting up straight.
“What happens in them?”
“What happens in them really isn’t important. It’s more about why something happens in them, I guess.”
“I’m going to go out the rest of the way with Isaac,” shouted Anne, “We’ll see you whenever you get out to the other side. We’ll set a fire and make something to eat.”
“Alright,” Elijah shouted, “See you in a bit.”
Their footsteps clambered down the hallway until finally everything was back to the same eerie silence.
“When do you start having these kind of dreams?” Aaron asked, staring at him.
“It was a while before I met Isaac down at Roma’s,” Elijah replied, taking a long drag from his morning cigarette.
“After you stole the horses?”
“A while before that, actually. This was back when people could still get along without the Digitalis and the hand implants and Mantis Masks. I stayed on a farm in those days. All of our animals died except two goats. They just started dying one day. This was before people realized why the air was so thin, and why people had such trouble breathing.
“One night I was out in the pasture while my aunt was inside trying to get the implant in my mother’s palm. I didn’t want to see it in her hand so I stayed out in the pasture as long as possible. Days, maybe even a week. Then I got worried about them since none of them came to check on me or offer me something to eat.
“We didn’t really have much to eat anyway. Sooner or later, we knew, we’d have to eat our goats. I refused to admit this to myself, but I knew it was inevitable. So I went into the house and called out for them, ‘Mother!’ I shouted, and ‘aunt!’ and there was no sound but a whirring pot on the skillet in the kitchen. I went to the pantry, the basement, looking for them everywhere. Almost all of the food had been taken from the pantry. There were boxes covering the floor from the pantry door to the front porch, and then out across the meadows out in front of our house.
Towards the end of the trail leading up to our house, in the meadow, I found a single, muddy slipper. I picked it up and ran back up to the house because I heard the pot whirring louder on the stove. It was chicken broth.”
“That’s why you so openly hate chicken broth?” Aaron asked with his eyes a bit hazy.
“That and the fact that it tastes like shit,” Elijah chuckled, “yes. There were muddy footprints on the steps out front. There was nothing to eat, so I had to do it. If I didn’t eat them, I would’ve died.”
“Eat them?” asked Aaron, “What do you mean?”
“The goats,” Elijah said, staring down at his hand with a stern, blank face, “I had to eat them.”
“Why have you been obsessing over it for so long, then?”
“The blood on the steps was dry,” remarked Elijah. For a minute he stared blankly at the slowly emptying bottle of Digitalis in his palm.
“In a pile of blood on the top step there was a dandelion. Just a flower.”
“But they were dead,” he went on, “The goats were dead. I’m almost sure of it.
A couple of days before I found out they were gone, I woke up to find the goats dead up under me. I slept with them in the pasture most nights when it was cool. They died one night while I was asleep. I stayed out there with them though and they were lifeless, empty so to speak, for at least two days. Then one night I’m asleep and I roll over and I hear one of them yell out from under me. It startles me; I run back into the house and find out they’re gone. Then after a lot of time went by, I decided to eat the goats instead of the chicken broth.”
Aaron went to say something but stopped as Anne came running through the doorway. Her breathing was heavy and labored. She looked into the room and scanned it, one side to the other, and shouted, “Get up, get up! You have to hurry. The phone booth is right outside and it’s working. Come on, hurry!”
Aaron extended his hand to Elijah, whose eyes had widened, and said, “Upsy-daisy.”
“I can get up by myself,” Elijah shouted, “and don’t call my Daisy.”
Anne turned and disappeared back into the hallway. Elijah straightened out his jacket and ran after. Aaron slung the grey sack over his shoulder, following Elijah through the doorway.
Lining the dim-lit halls were tattered bits of trash, paper, turned over cups and empty cans of canned goods. They followed closely behind Anne as she ran, ducking and dodging crates and spider webs, weaving her way in and out of rooms rapidly.
After ten minutes or so they reached the doorway and made it out into the listless grey afternoon. Bits of electricity played about a patch of the sky hovering just above the highest hill; on which sat The Portico. Like a lighthouse guiding lost ships to shore.
On a hill, behind which lay the derelict carnival grounds, there stood the seven foot high phone booth. Its sliding glass door was closed tightly. Elijah and Aaron made their way up beside Isaac, who stood staring blankly at it.
They all stood around without stirring for a moment. The sallow atmosphere of grey rolled on overhead. Bits of carnival rides were coming together, falling apart, and changing shapes rapidly.
In her pocket Anne heard the familiar three taps on the glass. She dug it out of her pocket and stared into the mirror.
The face in the mirror was holding a phone up to her ear.
“Hello?” said the reflection as the glass doors slid open. Anne walked up to the phone with a bit of hesitation. She took it off the hook and put it to her ear. ‘What was the number?’ she wondered.
Anne took the three quarters from her pocket and observed them: they were all normal, smiling. She sent them through the change slot. For a minute she thought something over, then turned around, shrugging.
“Do you know the number?” Aaron shouted from behind her, his hands resting on his knees.
“Look in my trunk,” she called to him, “It’s written in that book I’ve been trying to show you.”
Aaron opened up the trunk, then opened up the book. He read off the numbers.
“They’re arranged in a square,” he said, “Dial it like this: one, two, three, four, three, two, and one. Then wait while your call is connected, I guess.”
There was the same, distinct sound of hissing static for a moment. The phone rang a few times, and then a familiar voice answered.
“He’s writing now,” said Elizabeth. “Just try to hide whenever you get a chance to do so. You’ll be able to tell by the quarters when you have a chance to hide from him. But we figured out how our worlds ended up, you know, connected somehow. Well, we didn’t really figure out how they’re connected, but we know how to close the connection.”
“Tell me then,” said Anne.
“When you get near the end of your maze, you’ll have to look in that book you carry around when you see the golden moth. Once you catch it, put it in the Styrofoam cup, and shake it – your link to us will sever. Around that time, I have to play War March of the Priests at fifteen after ten. Then the link will sever.
That’s the only way to get you out from under Herman’s control. He’s going to kill you, all of you.”
“That’s kind of shitty,” she said, “If we’re created just to be killed off for no reason.”
“One more thing,” she said, “Try to watch out for some terrible bouts of bad dialogue just up ahead. Things are going to get kind of preachy and self indulgent. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I know that dealing with the plot inconsistencies is bad enough, but this is some truly terrible stuff here.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Anne said, “But how can we tell when it’s really us and when it’s someone talking through us?”
“I don’t know how to do that for myself,” said the voice. “Just send me a letter through the cup when things are going really bad.”
“Alright,” she said, hanging up the phone.
It disappeared and they found themselves standing in front of the house of mirrors, deep into the carnival grounds. One of the old rides was creaking as the wind shuffled under it, along with the sound of see-saws going up and down.
“Weren’t we just somewhere else?” asked Elijah.
“Mind your own business,” shouted Aaron uncharacteristically, “Don’t you understand that I love her?”
“Love her? Anne? Why the hell would you want to go and do that? You’ve got your whole life in front of you, man,” Elijah replied.
“No,” Aaron yelled, “Our love can survive your most intense desires. The throbbing in my loins sends a fragrance through the misty air of pungent lust and satisfaction.”
“Alright,” Elijah said, looking over at Isaac, who stood writing in his diary. “Mind telling me what it is you’re babbling about, or would you like for me to guess?”
“I’ve seen the way you look at her,” Aaron said, rushing up to him. “I shan’t allow it for one more day! If the tender enunciation of my velvet voice can’t dissuade you, we shall come to blows!”
“Isaac,” Elijah said, turning around, “Could you help me out here? I have no idea what this guy is talking about. He sounds like his head is halfway up his ass, but other than that … I’m confused.”
“I’m kind of busy,” said Isaac, “Just give him a fresh vial and have a sit down. He’ll sharpen up once he’s got some liquid in him.”
“Some liquid in him?” Elijah asked. “Is that some sort of perverted suggestion?”
“Give him some Digitalis,” said Isaac, “you retard.”
“Say please.”
“Just fucking do it already!”
“Fine, Mr. Huffy Pants,” Elijah said, spinning Aaron around and digging down into his bag. With his hands around the opening he heard a voice down in the bag; he took the bag from Aaron, sat it on the ground, and opened it.
The magic box that Roma gave him had sputtered to life.
Aaron’s animation drained from his face and he sat down beside Elijah on the ground. Isaac was whistling a song. Anne walked over to kneel by the magic box. There was a bald man behind a desk on the small screen. Beside him was a black, shining leather couch. Beside it was a living plant, wafting as a fan spun by it.
“What’s it going to be, fellas?” the man said, facing Elijah, Aaron, and Anne. Isaac didn’t seem to care much about it.
“What do you mean?” Elijah asked the magic box. Anne and Aaron looked at each other.
“Are we to cast off our sins and iniquities and go forth into the light of His eternal grace?” the man on the screen went on, shaking his finger.
“Yes,” Elijah said and turned around to face the others, “We are, right?” Anne and Aaron nodded.
“They agree,” Elijah said, “Go on.”
The screen went blank and was covered in static. Elijah shouted at it, as did
Anne. Aaron just stared at it. After a minute, Isaac yelled to them, “Try it now.” Elijah slapped the top of it and the man’s bald head crept back into frame.
“We must go to where Elijah went,” said the man.
Anne looked over to Elijah, cocking her head to the side. “Where did you go?” she asked him. She heard the sound of the muffled mirror talking in her pocket but ignored it; she was much more interested in Elijah’s magic box.
“I don’t know what this guy is talking about,” he said. “I haven’t been anywhere. Look, you fucker,” he shouted at the screen, shaking it, “Stop telling lies about me. This fucker isn’t listening.”
“And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them,” the man said, “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.’
“This guy is full of shit!” Elijah screamed, tipping the box over.
“Shut up!” Anne shouted, “Maybe this guy can tell us how to get to Ra’s Patio.” The man dabbed his face with a white kerchief, and took a long gulp from a cup.
“Are you really going to listen to this fat asshole?” Elijah asked, “He’s obviously full of shit,” he paused for a second and shouted, “Stop acting like you can’t hear me, you cock cobbler gobbling son of a fat fuck!”
“Is that really necessary?” Anne asked, fiddling about with the knobs running vertically down a panel beside the dusty screen. Again she heard the low voice inside her vest, but again she ignored it. It got louder and louder. And suddenly it stopped.
“I’m just upset,” said Elijah sheepishly, “that’s all. This man has wounded me.”
Isaac laughed loudly, stood up, and walked over towards them.
“What do we have here?” he asked.
“This is a box I had Roma put aside for me,” Elijah responded, lighting up a cigarette – using it to look at his palm for a minute, “He said it might be able to help us get to Ra’s Portico.”
“Portico?” Isaac asked.
“Kind of like a patio,” said Aaron. “They call it that further in the south. Nobody calls it the same thing anyway.”
“Thanks for the educational information,” Elijah said. “How about you put that back up your ass with the rest of the shit you talk about?”
Aaron nodded and his smile faded.
“Anyway,” Elijah went on, “This is supposed to give us some information to get us to where we have to go.”
“Excellent,” Isaac said, smiling the sort of smile that says I know something you don’t.
Elijah, Aaron, Anne – they had long expected Isaac was hiding something from them. They weren’t quite sure what it was, though. That never hindered their speculation.
In front of the house of mirrors they stood still for a minute, quiet, listening intently. They heard the sound of wood rolling in the tangled woods around them. Off in the woods they saw a light peak through, shattering and fragmenting as it looked through the trees.
“Fuck!” Elijah shouted, putting his box down in his bag, handed it to Aaron and ducked inside the door. They followed him. At the door they watched as a bumbling lump lurched across the gravel lining in front of the house of mirrors. When a light cut across the open door, Elijah saw the glare on the glass eye of the mantis mask. The man stood upright at the front of the pede-wagon as it rolled along; he was wearing a long, green coat with golden buttons, and his Mantis Mask was wrapped around his face tightly. Elijah took the gun from the belt of his jeans and thumbed back the handle.
There were three of them in the cart. Usually there was never more than two or three of the Searcher’s in a wagon at a time. Because, usually, they never took off more than one person. When they did take someone off, the person was usually too sick or old to fight off being thrown into the Vanishing River’s. With nothing but a flower left behind. Just a flower. And a couple more packages of shaving cream and toothbrushes heaped up into one of the four Piles.
“They were around here,” said one in a digitized gargle. “The woman was with them.”
The other nodded, shining his huge light up into the smoke-filled front of the house. Elijah was leaning up against the door watching the smoke swirl around in the flashlight’s broad beam, breathing heavily. Isaac stood on the other side of the door with a strange smile on his face. Aaron stood beside Elijah, staring ahead blankly.
“If they catch us,” whispered Elijah, “You know what they’ll do to us. They’ll take what Digitalis we have left, rape Anne, which wouldn’t be too bad, then give us one of those yellow pills, and throw us in the River. They’ll just cover it up, extend the Ten Year Gap to twelve or more, and just keep erasing people.”
The one standing at the helm of the small, wooden cart turned his head towards the door. No one was sure what kind of weapons they had, but reports were wide and varied: some said they carried electric scepters, some said they carried pistols, and some said they didn’t carry any weapons.
Elijah cast a nervous glance at Isaac. Isaac nodded, pulling out his gun. Anne pulled out her pistol, knowing, or at least thinking, that it had no bullets in it. Aaron had slumped against the wall with the Styrofoam cup in his hand. He turned it up and shook it; nothing came out.
The three Mantis Men were going to wait until they heard them. Elijah had dealt with them hundreds of times. Aaron had never seen them, and managed to sneak a peak out at them through a hole in the wall. Their eyes to him looked like giant drops of oil with tiny glimmers in them. Their gloves were wrapped tightly up to their elbows, and their high, black boots to their knees.
Elijah ran out of the doorway and down the steps and stuck his pistol to the head of the tallest of the three. Isaac came down behind him and stood at a distance with his gun pointed towards the others. Anne slipped out behind him and stood at the top of the steps. Aaron stayed inside to keep the bag out of their sight.
“Hello,” Elijah said to the man, at whose head he had his gun, “We’re going to have a nice, sophisticated chat. Aren’t we?”
The Mantis Man looked to his others, nodding. He sighed, which came out as a digitized hiss, and held up his hand to his others.
“I’ve no concern of you or your gun,” said the Mantis. “We’re concerned with your female friend here.”
“Ah!” Elijah shouted, taking his gun down, “I thought you came after my gun or my Digitalis!” He laughed loudly, showing his long, thin teeth.
“She’s more trouble than she’s worth,” he continued. “Allow me to get you her things.”
The Mantis laughed a gargled, digitized laugh as Elijah turned away. His face turned from Elijah’s back to the Mantis behind him. Anne winked at him from the top of the stairs and he turned around, swinging the butt of the pistol into the side of the man’s long and leather face. He collapsed to the ground, grabbing at the flap of leather at the base of his neck.
“Told you we’d have a nice little chat,” Elijah said, putting his boot on the man’s throat, thumbing the hammer of his pistol back again.
The other two of the fallen man’s company did not stir. Isaac turned the gun at one and then the other, but neither stirred.
Elijah took a syringe from the inside of his jacket pocket, stuck it down into the vial on his hand which hummed quietly along, and withdrew a small bit of the milky black Digitalis.
“You think you’re better than us,” he said, kneeling down beside the man with his gun still aimed at the side of his head, “just because you can afford to have those green masks wrapped around your face. You don’t have to take this, do you?” he held up the syringe in front of the man’s face, “Would you want to live if you had to take this shit? Would you want to live if you had to rely on some synthetic bullshit just to breathe? No,” he continued, “I don’t think you would. So, like to be a part of my experiment?”
Anne’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth as Elijah kissed the man on the side of his unflinching face, squeezing the syringe enough to send out a tiny bit of Digitalis onto the man’s face. He laughed and licked it off his mask. The man’s face didn’t move or flinch, but his legs were kicking under him like a moth fluttering around with one wing. His friends stayed their positions.
Elijah jerked down the man’s pants after taking off his boots. He threw the boots into the doorway of the house, and pulled down the man’s knickers. He grabbed the man by his shriveled, snail-like member. “He-he-he!” he shouted, shaking it.
“What are you doing to him?” Anne asked.
“I’m going to inject him,” Elijah replied, “in the dick hole.”
“That’s taking it a bit far,” Isaac said, “Don’t you think?”
“Do you know how many of our friends these pieces of shit have stolen from us?” Elijah shouted back, squeezing. A digital scream filtered from his long, O shaped mouth. His face was still lifeless behind the mask.
“It’s not going to change anything, Elijah,” Isaac replied. “If you’re going to kill him, just kill him. Don’t torture him.”
“What’s the difference?” Elijah asked. “The ends are the same. If the ends are the same, the means don’t matter.”
“That’s pretty cynical, Elijah. That’s basically saying that what we do in our life doesn’t matter because the ends are all the same for everyone.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Have you ever thought of it, Isaac? There are a million different roads to nowhere. His road, however, is just a bit shorter than ours.” And Elijah sat there for a minute holding onto the man. And he thought of what the folk at Roma’s said to hype up their place. They said that all roads in the world led to Roma’s. Some paths towards it were long and hard, and some just took a walk around the corner to show up. Others crossed from one end of the world to another, but they all ended up at the same place.
They used similar terminology to keep people showing up for injections, vials, even those big pumps of Digitalis. Whatever it is that you need to live, they said, that is Digitalis. Whatever you wake up craving in the middle of the night, that’s Digitalis. Elijah always thought of this as a sort of proverb. And he held to it. Underneath him the man was still squirming. The look on Anne’s face had stopped him for a moment. Her large, glassy eyes had swelled up and misted. Elijah slung the gun against the man’s face again, thinking of the chicken broth on his stove at home and how he’d always suspected that his mother was carried off by the Mantis Men.
He took a wilted dandelion from his pocket and sat it on the man’s heaving chest.
“You forgot this,” he said, and stuck the gun against the man’s head. Inside his head he heard the swarming sound of the moths as they sounded when he saw them in the valley, behind it was the loud smacking of a giant gavel.
He stuck the needle against the man’s skin.
“Elijah,” Anne yelled, “please don’t put that in him. Please.”
“Why do you give a shit what I do to this asshole?” Elijah screamed, “He kills people all the time just for personal gain.”
“And you don’t do that?” asked Aaron, appearing at the top of the steps.
“I do it to survive,” Elijah replied. “It’s different. I don’t do this shit for pleasure.” All Elijah heard was the electric static of the man’s machine-like breathing.
“Night night.”
He pulled the trigger.
Anne closed her eyes as a single tear ran down her face. She looked up at the swirling curls of grey and black as an electric storm was building in the south. Elijah looked up as a tiny bit of white waved back and forth on its way down. He held up his hand and cupped them as an origami flower landed in his palm. He shrugged, and together they entered the front door of the house of mirrors.
Shit, he thought, its raining origami. It hadn’t rained any for a very long time. And, paper or not, the rain was always welcome.Chapter 4
The Bridge

“Still blank,” Elizabeth said, stuffing the mirror back down in her pocket. “I hope they found a way to get past those things that Herman calls the Searcher’s. Or maybe Herman found some of the manuscript and burnt it or lost it? Entire portions of their character could be gone completely.”
“I don’t see why it matters,” I said, lit a cigarette, “They’re just characters. They’re of no real importance.”
“You don’t think book characters have any importance?” she asked.
“No, they’re not real.”
“What about the characters that have delighted kids for hundreds of years? What about the characters that uplift people’s spirits? What about the characters that allow you to learn something about yourself? Book characters are just as important as any real person.”
“What about Herman’s characters,” I asked, exhaling, “What makes them worth keeping? They don’t represent any profound truth or archetype of human nature. They’re shallow, flat characters. Except for the servant girl,” I laughed, “That’s a human truth for you.”
“What is it with you and all the sexist shit?” she asked, knotting up her thin eyebrows.
“Gives me a bit of amusement.”
Herman was in the other room asleep. We’d talk to him for at least a couple of hours before he got back to writing anything. When he went into his backroom to find a record to show to me, the same one as usual, we managed to get a notebook full of some guidelines he’d written for his book. We knew that he intended to send the characters through a sort of maze.
At one point in time I tried to persuade him to change his ideas. Just so Elizabeth would stop obsessing over it. “What if they’re alive now?” I’d asked him. He just laughed and took a swig of his orange juice. He took me less seriously than I took myself.
Elizabeth had tried to persuade him to throw in a happier sort of ending. This she did to no avail; he intended, he told us, to keep things as they were from the beginning. They would go through the house of mirrors, he said, and the Mantis Men would be right outside.
Before finding this out, we’d just got off the phone with Anne. Once we realized they were about to be in some real sort of danger, other than Aaron’s outrageously corny dialogue, Elizabeth tried to contact them. She knocked three times, twice, and even twelve. There was no answer.
As a joke, I’d folded a piece of paper into an origami flower. I put it under the coffee tin. I set it on fire, lifted up the tin, and it was gone; just as all our corrections had been before we sent to them the magic phone booth.
“Gandhi was a mean paper football player,” I said, trying to break the awkward silence. Anne laughed and ran her fingers through her hair, helping me get a bit of trash up from around Herman’s living room. It’d been a long time before we’d been home. It was almost as if our parents had disappeared. Her dad had yet to turn up in his white mini-van, and my dad hadn’t tried to reach me in days. It was as though that while we waited there in his stuffy living room, everything outside it ceased to exist at all.
“Did you see how wasted Winston Churchill was?” asked Elizabeth, gesturing for a lighter.
“His face was splotchy,” I said, “And he didn’t seem to be too thrilled to be there.”
Elizabeth suddenly became very animated. “Do you remember when he told us that his hummingbird was gone?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, “Why do you ask?”
“Maybe it disappeared because of all the gunk in the wheel,” she lit her cigarette, “It might be back there now.”
“Ridiculous,” I said, “That guy, Mike, he was out of his mind anyway. Did you actually believe all of that ridiculous shit he was talking about?”
“How can you sit in a ballroom, under a turtle shaped sandbox, in the company of Gandhi and think something someone said was ridiculous? Gandhi was playing paper football, Thomas. There is nothing on earth more absurd than that. Nothing.”
“Eh, I guess you’re right. But I don’t believe in recycling, as he put it.”
“Is it so hard to believe that an old friend returned as a hummingbird to watch over his friend?”
“It’s not like the bird helped him, Elizabeth.”
“Of course the bird helped him,” Elizabeth said, “It calmed him down. It gave him a chance to build him a birdhouse. It gave him a chance to care about something that was actually there.”
“I guess you’re right,” I conceded reluctantly. There was a hissing sound rubbing against Herman’s back door. The door was held by a small latch and made out of a fine mesh screen. It sounded as though tiny hands were wrapping up against it. But I just assumed it was the trees behind his house and ignored it. Until we heard the shouting at the back door that is.
I put out my cigarette and rushed towards the kitchen. Elizabeth followed me quietly, trying not to wake Herman up. We stood there silent for a moment, listening to our hearts throb in our chest and the slow churning of Herman’s washer and dryer rattling away on his back porch.
On the screen door we saw a silhouette of tiny hands trace a pattern on it. I stood in front of Elizabeth, acting brave when I would most certainly run to save myself. I’m not proud.
We stood there for a moment and listened to the wind outside. A moment passed. The grey hands behind the screen slipped down the door again. I turned to Elizabeth and nodded, reached down, and jerked the door open.
The back of his house appeared differently than it did when I first saw it. My hands were shaking as I crossed the threshold, leading down to his backyard.
A clothesline blew back and forth and on it white sheets swayed. Elizabeth followed me down the back steps. I was shocked at first when Herman didn’t rush to the back of the house to catch us before we left. Another thing bothered me as I stared across Herman’s moonlit backyard: the back of his house had changed significantly. I remembered a few days prior that there was a back porch just outside the door we’d just entered. He kept his hummingbird there, I remembered. Now the bird was gone, and Elizabeth and I tramped through the wet, sticky grass out into the woods.
In front of us we could see shifting colors passing in and out of the trees. The color was a bright, brilliant blue.
“Is that the golden butterfly?” Elizabeth asked.
I cocked my head and looked at her. “One of the symptoms of a golden butterfly,” I said, “is being golden. That, however, is blue. Thus, not golden. Thus, not a golden moth.”
“You could tell me without being such a smart ass about it.”
“Yes,” I said, “I could. But then I wouldn’t be able to get such a giggle out of it.”
We caught up to the light that shifted through the woods, casting lines and strands of pale blue and grey to be sent scattering through the woods. It was leading us to the route I use to go home. Down to the end of the street, past the turn around, across the playground, and into the clearing with the bridge. The bridge my friends and I made with an old, used car door some many years back.
I stopped a minute to catch my breath. Elizabeth stood behind me, huddled close against my back and breathing on my neck.
We stood at the edge of the woods. For a minute we watched as the blue light rolled across the clearing towards the bridge. It hovered over it for a moment, then went down through the window and disappeared.
Looking at each other, we shrugged and turned to walk back towards Herman’s apartment, when a voice from behind us yelled:
“Alright, put up your fucking hands!”
I went to turn around and felt the cold slap of an odd feeling hand across my face.
“Don’t look at my face!” the voice yelled, sounding very familiar, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go back to your friends house, He who is our lord, and you’re going to sever the connection between our worlds.”
“We’ve been trying to do that,” I said, “We have to find the golden moth first.”
“The golden moth,” he said, “You have to play your violin for it, yes?”
“I know that voice!” Elizabeth shouted, and turned around. Standing behind us was a small blue dog with a red bowtie.
“Oh dear God, why me?” I shouted, “We’re being ordered around by Huckleberry Hound. It’s been an awkward sort of day.”
“I don’t want any sudden movements,” said the dog, “I just want you to sever this link before more people disappear.”
“Disappear?” Elizabeth asked.
“People from our world are crossing into yours,” he said, “And people from yours are crossing into ours. Just an hour or so ago, John Wayne was just arrested for attempted murder.”
“Who did the Duke try to kill?” I asked.
“Yosemite Sam.”
“That’s inappropriate,” I said and laughed. “But,” I continued, “We’re going to close the gap as soon as we get a chance. Elizabeth has to learn a violin song, and then we have to play it at a certain time. Then, the links will sever. You can go back to whatever it was you were doing, anyway. Loser.”
“What do you mean?” asked Huckleberry Hound, “I’ve been doing important stuff.”
“Right,” I said coyly, “Working for a radiator?”
“Well,” he said, “I do stuff for him to pay the bills. I do have other interesting hobbies that hold my attention.”
“Such as?”
“Collected and sold stamps for a while,” he said, “I was going to open up a barber shop, but I never have the time. Lot of good people have gone missing, so I have to work more often.”
“Stamps,” I laughed, “It’s good to see you’ve kept yourself busy.”
“Alright, don’t try to jest with me. I’ve got to go back. Hopefully the other guys that came through won’t draw much attention to themselves.”
I laughed a ridiculous and loud laugh. My chest started hurting from laughing, so I lit a cigarette.
“If you see anyone from our side,” the dog said finally, “Try to immobilize them until you can catch that moth.”
I nodded.
“Dr. No was spotted causing some trouble at a local Wal-Mart,” he said, turning to walk away, “Apparently, he went in looking for a Dom Perignon ’55. When he learned they only had Boones Farm, he caused quite a fuss in the electronics section.”
“Where’s James Bond when you need him?” I said jokingly, hitting my cigarette.
“James Bond?” asked Huckleberry Hound, “He’s watching American Idol. He won’t pick up his cell phone.”
“Anyway,” he continued, “Go back to Herman’s apartment, wake him up, and keep him writing his story. Keep the TV on so you can stay up to date with everything that’s going on.”
He turned and walked away. He came to the bridge and stopped. For a moment he stood silent, staring up and the starless night. He opened the car door and climbed down inside it.
At this point, I was more than certain I had gone entirely bat shit. I had thoughts crowding in my head of the long lunch line and lobotomized personnel down in Columbia. If all this was a hallucination, I wish a hotter, more accommodating imaginary character had climbed out from the car door over the stream. After being harassed by Huckleberry Hound, cursed by Sherlock Holmes, and ignored sexually by an increasingly attractive violinist, I decided that I’d play one final joke.
I went back to my house from the clearing in the woods. Arriving home, the porch light was out and the front door was locked. Finally my grandmother came to the door.
“It’s late,” she said, tying her robe, “Supper is in the fridge. It’s better hot, you know. Not that you ever come home.”
“Been working hard on my guitar playing,” I said, “Herman thinks I’m getting better.”
“How long you going to stay before heading out?” she asked, leaning against the couch in our lamp-lit living room.
“Just came to get some cigarettes and a guitar pick,” I said, “Then I’m going back out.”
“I wish you would stay here tonight.”
“Why’s that? The Boogeyman after you?”
“No,” she said, casting a nervous, worried glance at me, “We had the police pick him up over an hour ago. He was ringing the doorbell and causing all sorts of ruckus. They hit him with the stun gun.”
“I’m glad you notified the authorities,” I said. I’d been, for a while, trying to rationalize everything. I tried to rationalize how Sherlock Holmes could logically call me. Or how my mother had to have the Boogeyman reprimanded by the local authorities. It seems that trying to rationalize everything takes away the mystery of it.
When I was a young child, I remember being fascinated by the stars. There were so many of them, and they stretched on and on and on forever. Then, as I grew, I learned what they really were. All of the sense of wonder and mystery vanished immediately.
Trying to make sense of everything just drains all the sense of wonder from it. Like the ring in the Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings – how did it glow when thrown in the fire? I don’t want to know, and don’t care. The sense of wonder is there.
Remembering the Lord of the Rings, I shuddered as I walked through our kitchen. What if Saruman crossed over? What if Wormtongue showed up at a local mall? What if Frodo was too short to ride the rollercoaster about two hours north at Carowinds?
My brother was sitting on the couch by his window when I walked in. He was pe king out of the blinds, out towards our deck.
“What’s going on, fatty?” I asked, sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Thomas,” he said, turning towards me, “Something is dreadfully wrong with this world.”
“I’m well aware,” I said, gesturing for a lighter. He handed me a lighter and I lit a cigarette, passed it to him, and reclined.
“Did mother tell you about the Boogeyman?” he asked after a while in a somber voice.
“It’s a damn shame,” I said, “What did the police say?”
“They took him to county, booked him for disorderly conduct. He’ll see the probate judge in the morning. They’ll probably just sentence him to community service.”
“So,” I asked, “Who’s on the deck?”
“It’s either Foghorn Leghorn,” he said, “Or a giant man in a chicken suit. And I pray to god, seriously, that it’s a man in a chicken suit. That’d be insane, too. But at least we wouldn’t have to listen to that annoying chicken. I say, I say, fuck Foghorn Leghorn, big fat ass rooster piece of shit.”
“Give me your pellet gun,” I said, with a cigarette dangling from my mouth. “Let’s fuck with him.”
My brother Kyle jumped, ran to his closet. A moment later he returned with a Red Rider BB gun. He pumped it and handed it to me.
“Pellet gun disappeared,” he said. “Lots of things have disappeared. But this is my old Red Rider. It’s loaded.”
I stuck the rifle out the window, aiming. “Shoot him in the ass,” my brother said. “Come on man, who could resist shooting Foghorn Leghorn in the ass? How many chances will we have to do this?”
“I’m not sure about this,” I replied. “Isn’t there an agency of people that do this kind of stuff? How can I explain this to my children?”
“If you’re not going to shoot him,” Kyle said, “give me the gun. He’s been out there for thirty minutes, walking back and forth with a bottle of bourbon.”
“Fine,” I shrugged. I aimed the gun right at Foghorn Leghorn’s ass.
“I say!” he shouted when the BB struck his ass. He ran across the deck, clutching butt cheeks, jumped over the handrails and stormed off through the garden. My little brother fell against the pillows of his bed, laughing deliriously.
“Do you realize how absurd this is, Thomas?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s great, isn’t it?”
“It’s been one of those weeks,” Kyle said, “Did you hear about the Nursing Home down the road?”
“The Hammer Brothers went in and just starting wrecking shit. There were no survivors.”
“The Hammer Brothers?” I asked, “From Super Mario Brothers?”
“That’d be them,” he replied, turning on the television.
“We go to Harold Worthy now with breaking news,” said a red-headed anchor woman.
“Linda,” said the man on the screen, standing in front of a burning car factory of sorts, “A Chimera of dubious origin,” said the man, “has set the Chevrolet factory on fire. The Chimera, as was reported, was caught in Sheriff Foster’s home late last night. When questioned, the man called himself a ‘Baku’ and protested that he’d come to eat his nightmares. Foster doubted the creature’s story, and he became very depressed. Hours later, the factory was on fire. Here is some viewer footage shot of the Baku as he danced about the top of the building. I warn you, this may be considered graphic.”
He cut to a shaky cam of a monstrous creature, with the head of an elephant and the body of a horse, who stood on top of the building blowing fire and dancing about.
“That’s a gay little dance,” my brother said, “but that’s a kick ass looking creature.”
“I think a Baku is from Japanese mythology,” I said, “But it’s supposed to eat bad dreams, not set departments of commerce on fire.”
“Let’s just hope that whatever caused this, stops this before something bad happens.”
“Something bad?” I asked, putting out my cigarette, “Imagine all the people that lost their jobs and cars. I don’t think automobile insurance covers destruction by mythical creatures.”
“I mean something like an army of Orcs, Balrogs, Sauron, or Roseanne Barr. Imagine the tragedy.”
I shuddered.
“I’ve got something to take care of,” I said to Kyle, walking into my room, “but, call me and give me an update later. I’ll take my cell phone.”
“Alright,” he said, and I closed my door behind me.

I was going through my bookshelf when I came across what I was looking for: The Brother’s Karamazov and Childhood’s End. If there were two characters I ever wanted to meet out of fiction, they were Ivan Karamazov and Karellen, the Overlord, and Supervisor of earth in Arthur C. Clark’s masterpiece. I hoped, of course, he wouldn’t mind me sending a hyper-intelligent devil into the streets of South Carolina. But he always fascinated me. Ivan Karamazov was a guy I’d always wanted to have a glass of Vodka with. If I could get them out, I’d certainly come back for more books.
If things worked for them as they did for Holmes, I’d be able to send them a phone booth much in the same way as she sent them to Elijah and Anne and that other morose feller. Hopefully they’d enjoy our Southern hospitality.
Hopefully the Janitor’s would clean the wheel and set everything right, and the car door that made the bridge would turn back into just that. Herman’s coffee tin would turn into just another coffee tin, and everything would be back to its own natural banality. Of course, I was in no big hurry to restore order.
If all went well, I might be able to bring through Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple breasted whore of Eroticon Six. Hopefully Douglas Adams wouldn’t mind me trying to seduce a product of his imagination. And if he did mind, I could take solace in the fact that he was dead, and as such nobody would be able to inform him.
As of yet, however, the dead had yet to rise. Hopefully they wouldn’t. Could you imagine your grandmother coming back to life just to come over and pinch your cheeks all over again and then give you fifty cents for five days work in the yard?
I never knew coffee tins could cause such a fuss. The possibilities were endless and exhausting, which is a terrible combination when all you want to do is sit around smoking cigarettes and getting drunk.
It sounds like a waste of life, doesn’t it? To spend all your days sitting around watching other people? It might be. Perhaps it is. But I always thought it was far more interesting to watch others than pay much attention to what it was I was doing. Not that I mattered what I did, but usually my own behavior seemed less mysterious than that of others. Why do people act the way they act? Is it because of some psychological influence from their past? I’m sure this comes into play sometimes in life.
When my aunt was eighteen, she moved out of my grandmother’s home. At first she struggled to get a steady job to make payments around her apartment. Two months after she moved out, she lost her job and asked my grandmother for a small loan so she wouldn’t be evicted before finding a new job.
My grandmother refused and my aunt was evicted. She stayed with friends for a few weeks before getting back on her feet.
My grandmother was, and is, an extremely kind woman. Under normal circumstances she would have been the first to offer money to help my aunt out. When my aunt called and asked for the money, it was near the end of the month. Since my grandmother lived on a fixed income, she was already running low on funds enough to feed the rest of us. The reason she didn’t loan my aunt the money was simple: Her cat, a black calico cat named Entae, had been in a fight with a local dog. Her spine was broken and she couldn’t walk, and without taking her to the vet there’d be no chance for her to live.
My grandmother had a choice: allow the cat to die, or give my aunt the loan. She only had money enough for one, and so she chose to pay to save the cat’s life. This was when I was ten years old, I think, and ever since then … my aunt has loathed cats.
The sight of a cat puts her to tears. She won’t watch animal programs on television because she thinks she might see a cat. She turns her head every time one comes close to her. When she visits, she calls before hand to make sure we’ve got Entae locked up in a back room.
Does she hate cats? No. She hates the fact that her mother chose a cat over helping her. That is what she hates, and this has influenced her for her entire life. So what is it that makes Herman who he is? That’s precisely what I want to figure out.Chapter 5
The Immortal Janitors

It was raining harder as the four grouped together just inside the front room of the house of mirrors. Elijah had refilled his palm after having broken out in a thick sweat. Isaac had helped Anne and Aaron refill, leaving himself only a tiny bit.
“Just on the other side,” Elijah said, “We’ll stop by Mike’s shop and get enough Digitalis to make it through the maze. It’s a waffle house, but he has Digitalis too. We’ll have to pay the Ferry Man to cross the rivers, but Anne has some change. Then, we’ll all go our separate ways.”
“We have to catch that golden moth,” Anne said. “We have to send it back through the Styrofoam cup. The connection is getting less stable.” She shuddered at the dialogue she felt forced to speak.
“That’s ridiculous,” Elijah said, “Can that shit, would you please?”
Aaron was sitting against a damp wall in the corner with his head nodded. In the front room there was a ravaged desk, completely bare, sitting in the corner, beside it was a fan and a poster. On the other side of the room was a locked door, bolted together with a chain. Elijah ran up to it and shook it angrily.
“Fantastic!” he shouted, “Now we’re stuck here.”
“Maybe not,” whispered Anne, digging into her pocket. She took out the piece of glass and tapped it three times.
“Hello?” said Elizabeth.
“Elizabeth,” Anne continued quietly, “There’s a locked door. Is there anyway you can change it?”
“I don’t know how I can get to his story right now,” she said. “He’s trying to trap you in that room to kill you off. All the writing is starting to hurt his head. He doesn’t know how to finish it; it’s going to end up killing him. He doesn’t talk much anymore or anything. It’s his Parkinson’s medicine I think. It’s turned him into a really mean man.”
“I know what you mean,” said Anne. “Elijah just tortured a Mantis Man. He was going to inject some Digitalis into the head of his dick. Instead he just killed him.”
“That doesn’t sound like Herman at all,” Elizabeth replied, “but I’ll go tell him that he’s out of orange juice so he’ll go to the store. Have you heard what’s going on over here?”
Elijah put his hands on his hips and looked over at Isaac. Isaac sat quietly in the corner, smiling, writing away in his diary. Aaron was still staring ahead with a blank expression on his face.
“What do you mean?” Anne whispered to the glass, “What’s happening?”
“Characters, more characters, have started coming out of the ground near Herman’s house. There is no way to explain this. None at all. I’m afraid I might end up back in the rubber hole with Thomas. We have no idea who’s causing it – but we’re pretty sure it has something to do with a wheel.”
“A wheel?” Anne said, thinking back. It sounded familiar to her for some reason.
“Yes,” said Elizabeth, “The connection between realities is breaking down because of problems with some wheel.”
“Oh!” she shouted. “The radiator told us about that. I’d almost forgotten. All I remembered was how he sung. He said that the Janitors were working on it, and that it would stabilize soon.”
“Janitors? For Heaven’s sake,” Elizabeth sighed. “Is there anything else? There’s just way too much going on right now. You need the door to the hall of mirrors unlocked, yes?”
“One second,” Elizabeth said and disappeared. The face in the mirror turned to Anne’s for a moment. Her face, which had not too long ago been fair and smooth, had turned into a deep mess of wrinkles and worry lines. Her soft, pink lips had chapped.
“Wait a minute,” Elijah said, walking over to Anne, “I thought you were blind. How can you see now?”
“It just went away,” she replied in a soft, hush-hush voice.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said, “Things don’t just happen. There has to be a logical reason.”
“Just because it isn’t logical,” she said, “doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
“Wow!” Aaron shouted from the corner, thumping the vial in his wrist as it hummed along singing its mechanical song, “A triple negative sentence! Truly impressive.”
“Alright,” Elijah said, “If anyone is going to be an asshole to her, it’s going to be me.”
“I’m back,” said the face in the mirror, “It took me a minute.”
“Is the connection between our worlds starting to break down? Have the Janitors failed?” Anne asked with extreme curiosity.
“No,” Elizabeth said, “I had to use the little girl’s room.”
“Oh,” said Elijah as he walked up to the glass, “Sounds kinky.”
“Anyway,” Elizabeth continued, “you want that door unlocked, right?”
“If you could manage it, pretty lady,” Elijah said and blew her a kiss.
In the corner the rusted metal chain slipped off and fell to the floor with a loud clanging noise. Aaron jumped and ran over to it, dragging the chain from the floor and sticking it in his back pocket.
“That’s a neat little trick,” Elijah said, rubbing his chin. “Do you mind if I ask you something in private?”
“What?” Elizabeth asked, “What do you mean?”
“Anne,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder, “Go over there for a minute. I have to ask your reflection something.”
She nodded and walked over towards the door. She knelt behind Aaron and listened to the voice inside his bag.
“Alright,” Elijah said in a hushed voice, “I need to ask you a favor.”
“Sure,” said Elizabeth, smiling at him, “What can I do for you?”
“Well,” he said, “I understand that you’re friends with our God.”
“You could say that.”
“Would it be too much trouble,” he said, his cheeks flushing red, “to give me… more endowment?”
“You want money?” Elizabeth asked.
“Not exactly,” he responded, “Could you, you know, make my … you know.”
“Ugh!” Elizabeth shouted, “What a disgusting abuse of omnipotence! You’re asking me to give you a bigger penis?”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Elijah started. “I mean, I’ve got decent girth… but the length leaves a lot to be desired.”
“You look a lot like a friend of mine,” Elizabeth said, “but, you’re a much different character than he is. He would never insult me by asking such a thing.”
“So, you think he’s got a huge rod?” Elijah asked.
“No!” shouted Elizabeth, “I’m saying he has respect.”
“Have you seen it? Come on, you can tell me. You kind of control this world right? I mean, can you tell me what you think of mine?”
“Just give the glass back to Anne!”
“Yeah, I’m going to.”
“I’m here,” Anne said as Elijah disappeared through the door with a strange expression on his face.
“Prude!” he yelled.
“Herman just pulled up,” Elizabeth said, turning to the side, “And I think Thomas is with him. Just tap on the glass if you need me, if you don’t get me through that… I’ll send a phone booth out on the other side of the River for you.”

Anne stuffed the glass back in her pocket and walked into the other room. Elijah, Aaron, and Isaac had all disappeared; before her was a long corridor of mirrors opposing one another. Some were tall and curved, some where short and wide, some where oval shaped, and some weren’t actually mirrors but were instead some sort of shiny bucket.
Anne called out in the dark. No response. So she walked through the center of the long line of mirrors.
She looked into the first one to her right and saw a young girl on a stage. A ballerina, she thought, reflecting on the music box the dead man gave her, and she knelt before it and stared.
There was a young girl on a small, badly weathered stage. Behind her was a giant black curtain. A man stood not too far near her with a cane in one hand and a pipe in the other. He looked familiar at first sight. Around thirty to forty people were gathered out in front of the stage watching the young girl dance. They were all men, all covered in the same dirty clothes and muddy boots. Each time she cart wheeled they grunted. Each time she flipped they clapped. Each time she stopped they booed.
“For two vials,” shouted the man, “This dancing queen could be yours.”
Anne cupped her hands over her mouth, looking at the white van parked just beside the stage. She remembered being dragged from stage to stage by that man, putting her on a stage like a performing monkey. She remembered him trying to sell her to a group of wanderers headed towards the mythical realm of Alaska. She remembered him succeeding, and she, more than anything, remembered Elijah, by himself, attacking the group of men that carried her about
in a cage. He cut their throats, took the Digitalis from their palms, and went to run away. Crying from the small cage stopped him. Walking up to it, he saw Anne’s face down inside it, a shade whiter than death.
In the mirror just behind her when she turned, she saw herself behind Elijah walking through a forest. The forest was greener than any green forest she’d seen in years. At the base of the trees the roots had begun to die away. This was long before she had the complicated contraption planted in the palm of her left hand to help her breathe.
She put her face down in her hands and sobbed. A small clicking noise brought her face back up to the mirror.
“Morning,” said the man. He was dressed in a long blue uniform and had on black boots with white laces. His hair was matted under a ball cap, and he pushed a broom around.
“I’ll let you get back to your reminiscing in just a moment,” he said. “Things have gotten a bit dirty around here.” He whistled for a moment, swiping the broom from one side of the mirror to the other, and tipped his hat. “There you go,” he said and disappeared.
“Wait!” she cried, “Come back!”
She waited for a moment by herself in the thick dark of the hallway.
“How can I help you?” said the man’s face in the mirror.
“When will you be able to get the wheel spinning again?” she asked in desperation.
“We’ve got good men working on it,” he replied, “but right now, there’s nothing else we can do.”
“What?” she asked, sobbing. “I just want things to make sense again. Why can’t you get it to work?”
“Right now,” he said, “is lunchtime.”
“Oh,” she shrugged, feeling silly, “Going anywhere nice?”
“Eh,” he said, “Some place for waffles, maybe.”
“Sounds nice,” she said dryly. “What time is it there?”
“No such thing as time here,” said the man.
“But you said it was lunchtime,” she observed. “How can it be lunchtime if there’s no such thing as time?”
“No such thing as time,” he said. “But, there is such a time as lunchtime.”
“Sounds logical.”
The face laughed and disappeared.
In the mirror to its side, arched and oval shaped, appeared another girl of an apparent young age. The girl smiled. Anne smiled back. The girl frowned. Anne frowned too.
“What’s it like to be dead?” the young girl asked, putting her arms behind her back.
“I’m not dead,” said Anne.
“Of course you are,” she said, “I was at your funeral yesterday. It was a bit of a bore.”
“That explains it,” Anne said mawkishly, “I must’ve slept right through it.”
“Don’t get an attitude with me just because you died!” cried the young girl, “In all actuality, I have no idea why I’m bothering to talk to you at all, since you’re nothing more than a figment of my imagination.”
“How are you talking to me, then?” asked Anne. “If I’m dead, how are you talking to me?”
“Through a mirror in my basement,” said the girl.
“Yeah, that makes sense. Do you get to see all of the people that die on the mirror in your basement?”
“Nope,” she replied, “Just you and Richard Nixon.”
Anne stared into the young girl’s familiar face for a bit. The girl rocked back and forth, singing a strange tune, studying Anne’s face.
“You’re me,” said Anne after a moment, “From some sort of different reality.”
“Certainly not!” the young girl said, “I’d rather die than wear gloves like those!”
“Welp,” said Anne, “now that I’m dead, fashion seems to have carried on without me.”
Behind her on another mirror she heard another strangely familiar voice. She turned around and scrunched her eyes up, staring intently. It was the Janitor again.
“God damn you!” she shouted, “I’m trying to do something! This story is going nowhere.”
“Just tidying up a bit,” he said, whistling. “I’m trying to help you out here.”
“What do you mean? ‘Help me out’?”
“I’ll tell you this because you’re cute,” he began, “but don’t tell my boss. He’s hardheaded. In fact, he’s a radiator.”
Anne sighed.
“There are thousands of wheels that hold together certain realities. The wheel holding yours together has stopped spinning. There is a world closely paralleled to yours that has, by a strange turn of events, ceased to function with any sort of logical set of laws. Their wheel has stopped spinning as well. And we, the Janitor’s, have been sent in to fix the wheels before all the realities get mashed together like. I’ve seen it before,” he sighed. “About twenty years ago, this was when I was involved in a dimension including time mind you, a reality of white and black zebra’s mixed in with a reality of black and white zebra’s and all the males became confused since in one reality the males were white and black and in the other the males were black and white and it ended badly.”
“Badly? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Let’s just say we had to go on strike when it came to cleaning up that mess. We lost some good men.”
The Janitor paused a moment and stared wistfully upward. A tear crept into his solid black, piercingly intelligent looking left eye. His right eye was a bit less intelligent looking, and far from piercing, but had a much better personality.
“So you Janitors are an immortal race designed to help keep the fabric of realities consistent by keeping the wheels cleaned and zebra’s from unintentionally committing homosexual acts?”
“Well,” the Janitor said and paused.
“You’re a highly intelligent race of time-traveling beings designed and commissioned by God with the sacred charge of keeping the fabric of space time consistent?”
“We just work here,” he said, and then. “You can have your fantasy back. I’m done with this side.”
“It’s impossible to find good work these days,” she said, and climbed to her feet. All along the long, long row of high and low mirrors she saw various faces of herself in different stages appearing and disappearing, appearing and being swept away by the same immortal Janitor. She had learned, however, something of the man:
His name was Wyatt Evelyn and he enjoyed watching an extremely complicated form of women’s basketball. On a planet near Barnard’s Star, he said, there was a Zero Gravity Women’s Basketball League. This was one of the few civilizations to invent sports before sport’s clothing, hence its immense popularity. And, he said, at least they could dunk. In fact it’s one of the few sports in existence where no score is tallied. Men’s basketball was fine, he remarked, if one wanted to relive the Zebra Fiasco in Quadrant Twelve.
He’d been cleaning the wheel for seventy five thousand millennia, and planned to retire soon.
“Oh yeah,” he said, as she walked towards the door, “Find that moth as quickly as possible. We have the wheels almost completely cleaned, but the moth is the key we use to turn the wheels on. This will do until we get the vacuum back. A friend rented it not too long ago.”
The wheel had frozen many times before and in places people popped out and disappeared. Anne realized that the disappearances could more than likely be attributed to the wheel being on the fritz and hopefully, once they got it running again, the people would stay gone.
He knew, or so he said, many different alternate versions of Anne. One, he said, was the president of a small farming corporation in an entirely alternate version of Montana.
“In some universe or the other,” the immortal Janitor said, “this sentence was spoken before I said it. In another universe, I’m starting the sentence now. And in some universe, somewhere, it must make some bit of sense. As for that Ten Year Gap,” he said, “We just swept all of that nonsense under a rug. We couldn’t clean it, vacuum cleaners were broken, so we just swept it under a rug and put a lamp on it. It’s for the best.”
The line of mirrors before her changed again: they all turned into perfect, symmetrical reflections of her. Each had a different feature or different grin. And then the image crept into her mind: Ra’s Patio. There’d be long, yawning green pastures and meadows. Fireflies would twinkle in the dark at night above a dark stream, as the dandelion seeds of the thousands that disappeared floated down the river, out to sea, to be swallowed whole by time.
She’d had the image in her head for a long time. In the blurry image she saw, she was leaning against the tree reading a book. The tree was a lonely old willow, and a tall hedge maze wrapped around a giant fountain in the middle of it. And there, lonely with the crickets in the meadow, the shaking hand of her God would be incapable of changing her. He’d changed something a minute ago, she thought; the story was pressing, she figured, towards some sort of insight into her past.
The janitors, she thought, had nothing to do with Elizabeth, the violinist behind the glass, but had wandered in through a different doorway.
Somewhere, she thought, there is a room by which each alternate reality is connected.
In some reality, she thought as the room dissolved, the story she occupied was done. In some other reality, her thought had been finished before she started it. In another, it might even make some sort of sense.
If I’m just some flat character, she thought, with no real past or memory, why does it matter if I press on? A dream? A formulated fantasy?
All of these seemed possible to her. More than likely, however, it was just boredom.
Stepping outside she noticed that Aaron, Elijah, and Isaac, who was grinning, had stopped in front of a floating door.
“This door,” Elijah shouted, “wants us to walk through him. I told him I’d have to get to know him a bit first, because I’m not that kind of person. But, he insists that we follow him.”
Anne strolled up in front of them and stopped just under the door. It was white but had streaks of chipped away paint on it. The knob was gold.
“We have to get to Mike’s,” Elijah said. “There are some things we need to get before we cross the River.”
“To Mikes?” the door asked, flapping open and shut, “To Mike’s is where we’re going. I hope you bring your appetite.”
“If its chicken broth,” Elijah said to the door, “you can go fuck yourself.”
The door chuckled mildly and opened. It hung curiously in the air for a moment as they stared into the black hallway just inside it. The grey clouds had begun to swirl about as another electric storm gathered in the distance.
Isaac was smiling wryly as he patted Elijah on the back.
“What exactly are you hiding?” Elijah asked him.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he replied. “We’ve got places to go, people to see.”
Isaac laughed and stepped into the door. He disappeared into the blackness and the door closed behind him.
Elijah walked up and knocked on the door.
“Easy,” said the door, “I’ve lost enough paint as it is.”
“Sorry,” Elijah replied, “Mind if I come in?”
“What’s the magic word?” asked the door.
“I’ll set you on fire if you don’t open back up.”
“Elijah,” Anne said, “You’re an asshole. Door,” she walked up to him and grabbed the knob, “we’d like to enter. Please?”
“Thank you kindly,” said the door, and opened, “Enjoy your stay.”
Elijah and Anne disappeared into the door and Aaron, still carrying Elijah’s sack, followed after them.
The door disappeared.
Just outside the house of mirrors, on the other side of it anyway, they could see Mike’s shop just in the distance over a few dust covered hills and plains. In front of Mike’s ran the long, lazy Vanishing River’s – and the Ferry Man was taking the long line of people from one side to the other as they gathered. There were thousands of people, some alone and some in bands together, gathered in front of him, staring at the other side. A giant lighthouse loomed high above the maze, its searchlight oscillating back and forth over the hedge maze, lighting up the dark contours of the four statues that stood at the mouth of the maze.
A small party of very confused people appeared from no where at the shore.
“Yes?” asked the blind man, “How might I be of service?”
“Don’t you know who I am?” said the man before him, “I’m the President of the United States!”
“The United States?” asked the ferry man, “The imaginary country?”
“The country is far from imaginary,” yelled the man. “What the hell are we doing here?”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing,” the blind man replied. “If you’d like to pass, however, you’ll need three quarters.”
“But I’m out of change!” yelled the president.
“Then you’d be better off in the ballroom,” replied the man. “Would you like to go there now?”
Skyscrapers appeared off in the high hills behind Mike’s shop, one after the other, and cars began to line the roads. People jumped from their cars and talked amongst each other, wondering where they were. No one was sure, save for a couple of wise ass Janitors and an insane radiator.
“Things are being straightened out,” the ferry man reassured him, as his family members popped up behind him. “We’ll return you back to your world soon enough. We’ve got good people on the case.”
Chapter 6
The Immaculate Vacuum Cleaner

I decided for the first time in a long while to walk the main road, instead of the back way, to Herman’s house. As I walked, an increasingly ravenous bunch of cartoonish wolves stood poised beyond the sidewalk, snapping and yelping as I passed.
At the end of the short road that turns towards Leisure View Apartments, a woman stood against the lamppost, smoking a cigarette.
She wore a long yellow dress and burgundy cape. A red bow wrapped around her thick, black hair. The smoke from her cigarette drifted lazily up into the faint glow of the flickering light.
“Looking for a good time?” the rosy-cheeked woman said in a sultry voice, winking at me. Resting on the fence behind her were seven midgets.
“Always,” I said, “but, as of now an introduction would suffice.”
“Sugar,” said the woman, “Have you ever tasted snow so white?”
“I had a cheeseburger a few days ago,” I remarked, “but, it wasn’t quite snow.”
“The name,” she said, “is Snow White. And Prince Charming is playing golf, want to have a romp you’ll never forget?”
For the first time in my life, I seriously debated whether or not I would attempt to seduce Snow White. I had a casual girlfriend, but I didn’t want to break her heart by groping her favorite fairy tale character. As a girlfriend, she had every right to bitch at me for everything. As a boyfriend, I gave her every reason to do so. That was the contract.
“Wouldn’t the Seven Pimps be a bit angry?”
Headlights of a ragged car swam up on the blacktop coming towards us. It was the truck of a young man that occasionally came by to park and stare at my young sister lying in the sun.
“Where you going?” he called, pulling up to the sidewalk.
“Wherever you want to go,” called Snow White. He stuck up his thumb, directing her to the back of the car, and yelled, “I might not be Prince Charming, but I’ll make you breakfast in the morning.” A chirping bird that had sat on her shoulder fluttered backwards to the fence beside the Seven Pimps. It stared as she frolicked around the truck. “Woo!” he yelled and revved the engine, and then speeded down the short road.
The bird stared at me mistrustfully. It shook its head and then flew over to me, landed on my neck.
“Things are a bit out of sort, aren’t they?” the bird asked in chirpy voice.
“That’s an astute observation for a bird,” I said. “Want a cigarette?”
“Trying to quit,” said the bird. “You need to get back to Herman’s. There’s a revolving doorway that will bring you and your double, Elizabeth and hers and everything to a singular meeting place. Somehow you’ll be able to converge upon an opposite, irregular reality that is breaking down. First come the doubles when the wheel breaks down, and then come the dead.”
“That’s all I need,” I said, “Another man to curse me when I walk in his yard.”
“Even the houses are getting a bit restless,” said the bird. “The older houses are upset because none of the newer houses will hang out with them and tents won’t stay off their lawns.”
The short street was dark save for the milky glow that lit the corner. There were three houses, two of them surrounded by a ragged fence, on one side of the road; on the other side there were three and one was collapsing in on itself.
“You’ll meet them at a place suspended between your two realities,” he continued, “There you’ll be able to get them across the rivers if they need it. If not, you can always have some waffles and a cup of tea.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said, and shooed the chirpy bird away, “but I really have to be going. Nice to meet you,” I extended my hand. “What’s your name?”
“In one life they called me Marquis de Sade.”
“You used to be a man of perverse genius,” I laughed, “and now you’re a ridiculous little bird. That must suck.”
“It was the only body they could find me at short notice. Thankfully I didn’t commit suicide,” he went on, “I’d have ended up like poor, poor Ernest Hemmingway.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was recycled into a dog.”
“That’s not so bad…”
“…A dog that lives in Cleveland.”
“My god,” I stammered, “Is there nothing we can do?”
The bird sighed. “I’m afraid not,” he said mournfully. “The rest is up to God.”

I chuckled and walked away. Halfway down the poor lit street, a car pulled up behind me. I was more than certain it’d be Magilla the Gorilla in a station wagon. Instead, it was Herman.
“Thought you might want a ride, buddy,” he said. “Get in, I got somethin’ I need a strong back for.”
“Alright,” I said, “But I never volunteer for labor unless I’m getting paid for it.”
He slapped his knee and chuckled, putting his arm around my shoulder. I felt a little uncomfortable, but ignored it. Probably a figment of my imagination. With Snow White on the corner, and Foghorn Leghorn on the deck – a little latent homophobia was the least of my concern.
“I went to see your daddy,” he said, “I forgot to go by the store for some orange juice, I think that’s what it was, and I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave her there for a minute on her own.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, lighting a cigarette, “I went by there to talk to him and I heard him playing guitar in the front room. You know how he has that long driveway?”
“Yeah, with the flowers lining it.”
“Yes,” he continued, “Once I got halfway down the drive, I could hear the guitar in the main room. I heard your daddy in there laughin’ and singin’ and probably smoking that Digitalis.”
“Smoking Digitalis?” I asked, casting an odd glance over at him. He was smoking for some reason, though he never smoked before.
“You know that reefer,” he said, “It’s the same thing. So I get halfway up the drive and the lights go off in the front room. Power must have went out, I thought. So I get the flashlight out of the trunk and go up and knock on the door and nobody comes to the door. I think they’re hurt or something because they didn’t answer the phone when I called from Bud’s.”
I looked down at my cigarette, at all the smoke trailing up and out of the window of his beaten down station wagon, and realized why he’d called my dad’s reefer Digitalis. It was basically the same thing, and I thought I saw what he was saying with what he was writing. My cigarette, his Parkinson’s pills, my dad’s reefer, Tylenol PM, reading, writing, drawing, and every other addiction was the same thing.
“Let’s just go back to your apartment,” I said. “Don’t worry about them. Kids must’ve been being bad so they put them to bed so they could smoke.”
“They could be in trouble,” he shouted, slamming his fist against the steering wheel.
“But I feel a little sick,” I pleaded. There was no way I wanted to go back to my dad’s house; I knew they had cut out the lights and stopped answering the phone just to avoid him coming by.
“I picked up some lanterns at the store,” he continued, “and plus that flashlight. If something is wrong with their phone I’ll let them use my portable one if I can find it. The main thing is makin’ sure they alright, bud. Don’t you care? It’s your daddy, ain’t he?”
“I do care, Herman,” I shook my head, “They probably had to go out of town.”
“I saw the lights go out! I know they’re there and they need our help.”
Before I could protest anymore, we pulled into my dad’s long, flower laden driveway. In the floorboard I saw that not only had he brought a lantern, but he had just paid for a few supplies. Canned goods, matches, and there was a cooler in the backseat.
“What’s the cooler for?” I asked.
“Because if their power is out,” he replied, “Then they’ll need some place to put their milk and frozen meat.”
“How about I run and check to see if their home?” I said, opening the car door,
“If they’re not, I’ll leave them a note. Ok? It’s kind of cold for May, and you don’t need to get sick. So just leave the car running and I’ll run check things out. Is that good?”
“You too good to me, buddy,” he said and nodded his head. “Go fish ‘em out. I’ll be right here. I got a new blues record I want you to listen to when you get back. You said you liked the blues, right?”
“Yes, Herman,” I said, standing beside the car, “I like the blues.”
It was amazing, I thought as I walked up the gravel driveway to the front porch, that he remembered the kind of music I wanted to play. Remembering something crucial, I ran back to Herman’s car.
“Hey man,” I said, “Can you back the car up a bit? The kids might be asleep if they are here. That way the headlights won’t wake them up?”
He waved, nodded, and put the car in reverse. He stuck his hand out the window and waved.
I wanted him to back up for two reasons: one, my dad wouldn’t answer the door if he saw me with Herman, and two, I didn’t want Herman to see me walk inside and keep him outside waiting.
My dad opened on the second knock. I was furious already. Why would he rather let me into his home than someone like Herman? I’m well aware that I’m an asshole. Herman was never unkind to anyone, and he had a truck full of things to help my dad out.
“Dude,” my dad yelled, “You have to check this out.”
Shrugging, I followed him into the living room. There was a long couch, burgundy, that wrapped around the edge of the room. A lamp was dim on a desk beside the arm, and in it I saw fifty or so roaches and half-joints, cigarette butts. They were huddled around an old TV, the kind that still had the aluminum foil and rabbit ears on it. My dad, as usual, was baked out of his mind, and his girlfriend, or his cancerous growth as I called her, was leaning against him giggling, smoking on the end of a joint.
“Take off your shoes, man,” my dad said. “Don’t want to fuck up my new carpet.”
“You got that carpet eight years ago,” I said, laughing.
“But I just cleaned it, so take off your shoes.”
I laughed a bit and shook them off. They had went right back to the living room after Herman left.
“Where the crotch critters at?” I asked, reaching for a joint. I’d just been propositioned by Snow White and had recently shot Foghorn Leghorn in the ass with a pellet rifle. A couple draws off a joint could hardly make things any more ridiculous.
“Just put ‘em to bed,” said my dad’s current fling. “There’s a news report on. Sit down and watch it.”
I passed the joint back to my dad and sat down, annoyed. Herman was out in the car and here I was getting stoned.
“Look!” my dad shouted, “It’s back on.”
On the television there was a woman with a silly blazer and a microphone in front of a local grocery store. Large groups of people were standing around shouting in their bathrobes and a few dozen or so of the local patrons had brought lawn chairs and beer.
“We return with breaking news,” said the woman in the silly blazer. “A man in a white and black outfit has taken several shoppers hostage. He has donned a black robber’s mask and is demanding several hundred hamburgers and a nice place to have a smoke afterwards.”
My dad was in the floor with laughter at this point.
“It’s the Hamburgler!” he shouted. “This is hilarious.”
I looked down at the joint I was handed, and refused it.
“I’ve got Herman out in the car,” I said, picking up my dad’s guitar.
“Why the hell did you bring him over here?” my dad asked, hitting the joint.
“I didn’t necessarily bring him over,” I replied. “He came by and saw your lights go out when he got halfway down the drive. Then when you didn’t answer the phone he thought something was wrong. So he went round to Bud’s and got a lantern, in case the power went out, and also some canned goods in case anything happened.”
My dad howled with laughter.
“He’s retarded,” my dad said. “He’s one of those idiot savants. Trisha,” he handed the joint to his slack-jawed girlfriend, “This Herman guy just shows up uninvited all the time. Always talks about how famous he used to be, all of the famous people he’s played guitar with, and always makes people watch the same stupid ass videos all the time.”
“Yeah,” I said, “He’s been writing a book. It’s been causing a lot of problems.”
“I’m surprised that retard can remember where the characters are or who they are or where they’re going.”
“Eh,” I said, “It’s not Dostoevsky. But, I’d take it over Dean Koontz.”
“I’d take a disembowelment with a cooking spoon over Dean Koontz,” my dad said, “but, just go tell him to fuck off. He’s probably come to get all that money from your guitar lessons.”
“He isn’t charging me anymore,” I said.
“Yeah, I bet he isn’t teaching you how to play anymore either, is he?”
“Now that you mention it,” I said, “he really hasn’t taught me anything.”
“See?” my dad puffed, “He’s just using you for company because he drives everybody else away with his constant lying.”
“I guess,” I said reluctantly.
“You feel sorry for him?” my dad asked. “That’s what he wants. That’s his game, you see. He tries to trick people into feeling sorry for him.”
“No,” I said, “I’m just trying to get guitar lessons. We talk about music a lot. He had some problems with his mandolin a few days ago,” I laughed inside my head, “but, we’re going to get to some actual lessons when this whole mess is straightened out.”
On the television, the chirpy young woman in her terrible red blazer was replaced by a senate committee. It was full of pandering middle-aged bald men standing around nodding and shaking and going “mm” and “hmm,” while another geezer with terrible fashion stood at a tall podium in front of them.
“The news, as it has come to us,” said the spectacled geezer, “The entire western coast has disappeared.”
“Thank God for small favors,” I said.
“At this rate,” continued the man, “several small towns and cities, starting at the California barrier, are disappearing.”
A man in the crowd with a cue-card in one hand and a microphone in the other stood up and addressed him: “There are reports that people are disappearing too,” the balding representative from Massachusetts said, “Can these be confirmed or denied at this time?”
“At this time,” the man behind the podium said, “that cannot, as of yet, be substantiated. The people that claimed to have proof can’t be reached. We’ve emailed them, mailed them, called, even sent notice to their neighbors. As of now, however, things are a bit out of sorts.”
“California,” said the senator of California, “has disappeared off the face of the earth. I consider that a bit serious.”
“Seriousness aside,” the man replied, “As of yet, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve put up missing flyers, have you seen me pictures, and have contacted the states that border the missing states along the western shores.”
“We’re getting reports,” said the woman in the drab blazer again, “from Belmont, Nevada. We go live to Sharon Solders. Sharon?”
“Yes, Jennifer,” said Sharon, a carnivorous looking woman with a bad overbite and gaudy earrings, “We’re standing now at what is an increasingly shortening stretch of land. As we see,” the camera zoomed in on the horizon as the land drew inch by inch closer to the reporter, “people have taken to fleeing eastward. Although, on the other side of the world, the same thing seems to be happening. Land is restricting, disappearing, but all points seem to indicate, as scientists have said, it seems like everything is heading towards a certain point located in the southeastern United States. Just hours ago, Australia disappeared completely from the map. The parade is scheduled for Sunday. Some locals have observed that it seems as though the earth is being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner.”
“Put it back on the race, baby,” said Trisha. “I don’t like watching the news.”
“And I have to go,” I said, “What do you want me to tell Herman?”
“Tell him that he should go fuck himself and stop coming by here all the time.”
I forced a laugh and stood up, putting my dad’s guitar in its case. I walked towards the screen door.
“Actually,” he said, “just tell him to come by tomorrow morning. Around lunchtime or so.”
“Why around lunchtime? I asked.
“Because I’ll be at work.”
I nodded and turned to walk away again.
“Hey,” my dad called after me, “what did you do with my guitar strings?”
“What do you mean?”
He held up his guitar and turned it over. The strings were missing.
“The strings were just on it,” I said.
“Then where did they go? Did you steal them? If you need money for strings, just ask. Don’t come into my house and steal from me.”
“Look,” I said, “I don’t steal. Much less from my family. If I’m going to steal something, I make damn sure they’re not related beforehand.”
He laughed and shrugged it off, putting it down in his case.
“Come by tomorrow,” he said, “I want to show you something weird out in the shed.”
I nodded and walked out, across the front porch, and down the cement steps. Herman was parked in the driveway, where he stopped when I went in some thirty odd minutes ago.
“Are they alright?” he asked when I opened the door, sat down.
“Yeah,” I said, lighting a cigarette, “The power blew while Tim was in the bathtub. He got really scared and started screaming. They must not have heard you knocking back there in the bathroom trying to calm the kid down.”
“I’ll take them the lantern,” he said. He opened his door and put one foot on the gravel.
“No,” I said, grabbing his arm, “They got a new light bulb put in and everything is fine. Right now, Tim is going to sleep. He said just come by tomorrow or so and bring you guitar.”
“Around what time you think?” he asked.
“Lunchtime or so, he says.”
“I’ll keep the lantern and stuff just in case,” he said. He shifted gears, putting the car in reverse, and backed out of the driveway.
“There’s one more thing I want you to help me with, buddy,” he said. “I hate to keep you so long and bother you, but it’s gone rain soon and I think I need your help. I won’t keep you too long, I know you have lots of other stuff to get back to.”
“What do I have to get back to?” I asked, “Every day is the same routine. I wake up, walk to the bathroom, brush my teeth, shower, get something to eat, play some guitar for a while, read, and then go back to bed. It’s just a cycle; it’s like I’m programmed.”
“All people’s programmed,” he said, turning down a side road heavy with trees, “Everybody programmed, buddy. Programmed to do the same thing in different ways.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Ever wonder why people do what they do?”
“’Cause they programmed to, Thomas. You were programmed to be you and you had no say so. What’s your favorite food?”
“That’s the way you’re programmed, don’t you see that, buddy? You were programmed to like lasagna. There’s something written that makes you who you are.”
“You know,” I said, “I’m really not sure who I am, what I am, or where I am or why. Nobody does, Herman. We just have to accept it.”
“But I can’t just accept that people are so dirty to each other,” he replied, pulling up to the side of the road by a low hanging willow tree.
“Why are we stopping?”
“Get the flashlight and get out of the car,” he ordered. He jumped out of the car and walked down beside the curb for a moment.
“She was here a minute ago,” he shouted, shining his flashlight up and down the road, “that’s why I need your help.”
I sighed. It was getting colder and colder. Of course this was during May, but the temperature had been decreasing dramatically over the last week or so. People were starting to wear coats again.
“What is it?”
“Here!” he shouted, “Look down by the gutter.”
Down by the gutter in a mess of tangled leaves was a dirty, soaking wet cat. There was blood along the side of her back. She looked as though she was dying.
“She’s dead,” I said, “Let’s go.”
“Look though,” he pointed to the mass of blood tangled up behind her, “That’s the placenta.”
“That means she has babies somewhere. They must be down in the woods somewhere or down in the gutter.”
Herman stepped onto the curb into the wet evening grass. A long row of trees stood beyond the sidewalk. We were on the street behind the old school, and the light behind it gave little light to the woods.
Herman was off into the woods with his flashlight. I walked up to the cat in the gutter and sat down on the curb to get a better look at her. She had obviously been hit by a car. Her muzzle was covered in dried mud and dirt and mud, and one of her eyes was cocked open.
“I found one!” Herman yelled. I could hear the wet stomping and rustling of his feet about in the wet wood and brittle sticks.
I shined the flashlight at him through the woods. He was only about fifteen paces from the road, just shy the streetlight and just side the light that stayed on in the back of the old school.
“Is it alright?” I yelled, stomping off into the woods to find him. The mother cat was dead, but there was a sign of placenta on it. Herman was right about that.
“Dead,” he shouted back, “I hear more of ‘em! Come on!”
He ran down through the brittle sticks and hanging branches dripped in the evening’s dew. What little light there was in the road created silhouettes of the trees when we stared towards the car. As a child, I’d played in those woods. I’d kissed my first girl down at the rotted log that suspended two sides of a small gully. I could hear the echoes of my friends that had slid down through time as we walked around with more in mind than eight to five days out in the sun with hard hats, with all our dreams tucked into the tiny cupboards of our minds.
He poked and prodded about the loose underbrush with a tree limb. I could hear them too. Their meowing was weak, of course, but the wooded area was thin and tiny shimmers cut through the trees, reflecting off the dew that rested on the overturned leaves.
Under a small ridge laden with pine needles, wet grass, and palm branches there was another one. This one was dead as well. I called Herman and he came up beside me and knelt beside the ledge.
“Is that one dead too?” he asked. His face was worried and strained.
“Yeah, come on,” I said. “We’ll find the rest of them.”
He picked up the dead kitten, took a kerchief from his back pocket and wiped it off, and put the small cat down in his front pocket. There was another meow not too far from us by a covered bank. Herman ran over towards it. Down under the edge there were a few kittens meowing and squirming in the mess of wet leaves, grass, and pine needles.
“These are alive!” he shouted, “Here, take one. I’ll get the other two.”
He picked up the two cats, moving the stems and twigs out of the way. He un- tucked his shirt and dropped them down in it like a cotton cradle, and we hiked the small hill leading to the car. At the edge of the hill, where the grass met the sidewalk, a small, tightly bound book of sorts was trampled and wet. The front of it was purple, tied with a golden band, in the bottom corner was a treble cleft, and the seal came together in the middle with a brooch of gold resembling a moth. Being that it was peculiar, I decided to take it with me.
“I’ve got three dollars left,” he said. “Do you think that’ll be enough to get them some milk? We can nurse ‘em back to health or find them a mama.”
“I’ve got a female cat at my house,” I said, lying again. “Tomorrow I’ll see if I can get her to nurse them. If not, then you can go pick up some Pro-Biolak. That’s what we used on our kittens a couple of years ago.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence.

When I pulled up, I noticed Elizabeth staring out the window through the flipped down blinds.
“Want me to help you get in the things you picked up? The lantern and such?” I asked Herman, as he sat motionless in the driver’s seat. He stared at the steering will with a blank expression on his face, the smile of earlier had faded.
“What is it?” I asked, “Something wrong with the kittens?”
“That’s not it, buddy,” he said, rolling their tiny bodies over in his lap. “How’s yours doing?”
The tiny, wet-haired kitten was rolling around in my left palm meowing and squeaking lively.
“He’s fine,” I replied. “So, what’s wrong with you?”
“Somebody hit that mama cat,” he said. “She ain’t even get a chance to see her kitties grow up. Do you think cats go to Heaven, Thomas?”
“I don’t think there is such a place,” I said. “I don’t believe in heaven or hell or anything other than a long and dreamless nap.”
He looked at me as though heartbroken. His eyes glassed over and his hands twitched when he reached into the console, pulled out a bottle of pills. He downed two of them and looked out across the brightly lit apartment complex. Smoke was rising from the roads in tufts that rose up through the long line of trees beyond the other side of the road.
He was still silent.
“So that’s all there is, Thomas?” he said, not losing his faint, forced smile, “All those kitties just died out in the woods. Cold and dark and hungry and afraid with nothing on earth but those three minutes of misery to make their entire life? How can there be nothing more to it? They just died! Their mama got hit by some car that didn’t bother to stop. They didn’t even care… didn’t care. Two of the kitties are dead from freezing … can you imagine, Thomas, buddy, how scared they must’ve been? Alone in the dark, cold, starving, with no hope at all. Why did God let them be born just so they could suffer for a few minutes while their mother died out in the gutter? Nobody even came back to pick her up before the bugs got on her. And you say there is no Heaven? No hell? Hell is here, and here to stay.”
“You didn’t let me finish,” I said. “I said there wasn’t a Heaven, because I don’t believe there is any place called Heaven. But I do believe that the kittens might have been someone else in a past life being punished for something they’ve done in their last life.”
“What? I’m not an educated man, Thomas, and I don’t know much of anything, so make it simple for me.”
“Think of it like this. Think of your body as a ship. The body is controlled by some sort of animating essence…”
“A soul,” he interjected.
“Yeah,” I said, “Soul, whatever. Say your body is the ship and your soul is the captain that guides the boat. When you die, your ship wrecks, but the captain finds another ship.”
“The kittens are still alive?” he asked.
“Whatever essence,” I said, “Er, whatever soul that was already in the cat must’ve just drifted out into another ship, or another body. First it has to be recycled, though.”
“People can come back to earth as cans?”
“That’s not what I meant by…”
“People at the trash dump have a huge container just for cans. Are those people in prison? Can we save them in time?”
“What I mean is,” I said, forcing myself not to laugh, “Their soul is recycled and put into a different sort of body. Say a friend of yours dies as a person, he could then be recycled into something else.”
“Like what?”
“A hummingbird,” I said, “but people are never reincarnated as soda cans.”
“Well thank God for that.”

Herman went straight into his small attic after we went into the house. He arranged the bodies of the two dead kittens in a small box and put a flower by both of them. The living three were placed on a mat in his bedroom.
Elizabeth was sitting on a box of pictures in the living room with her violin raised, bow ready; beside her was a small container of resin for her bow. She played a few lines of a scale and then put it away in frustration.
“I’ve been trying,” she said, “to figure out how to play this War March of the priests, but I can’t figure out who it’s by or what key it’s in.”
I remembered the book I found by the damp embankment in the woods.
“I found this,” I said, handing it to her, “in the woods. Look at the brooch that snaps it together.”
She took it from me and unsnapped the book. It folded open. On the first page read: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN.
“Mendelssohn,” she said, “I’ve heard of him. I know his violin concerto in E minor, Op. 64: III. Allegreto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace.
“I’ve heard of him too,” I said. “His ‘songs without words’ piece was good.”
She thumbed through the damp pages as I looked around for a guitar to play. She dropped the book onto the floor and stood up, with her hand cupped over her mouth, and pointed down at the page it opened to. It read:


“This feels a bit scripted,” I admitted, “but at least you can learn the song now. Yes, you can learn the song and we can ask the Boogeyman to stop harassing my mother.”
“That reminds me,” she said, “I talked to Anne and your double, Elijah I think his name is, and they’re entering into the house of mirrors. I talked to Herman as much as I could about his story, and all I know is that he’s going to kill them somewhere within the maze that sits outside of Ra’s Patio.”
“They all die in the maze?”
“Yes,” she said somberly, “unless we can save them somehow.”
“It really doesn’t matter if we save them anyway,” I said before she got all weepy, since that is the female tendency after all. “They’re just going to die when nobody reads his book anyway.”
“Don’t you ever just hope?” she asked.
“Hope is ridiculous. Yes, yes, I’ve read all the books and I’ve seen all the movies that lift it up as some giant triumph of the human spirit when it’s just a delusional optimistic denial of reality. Beautiful? Maybe it is. Ennobling? Of course. Does it change anything? Not at all.”
“Hope isn’t about changing things,” she said, pointing to her eyes. “It’s believing that things will work. It’s a very important thing.”
“It’s delusional, superstitious, and too often helpful.”
“You’re hopeless,” she said.
“Couldn’t agree more,” I replied.
She picked up the sheet music for Mendelssohn’s Athalie and ran through the first few phrasings of it. Her playing was as fluent as it had been when I first heard her. Herman had moved his television back into his bedroom, for some reason, so I excused myself to pop in for a few hours of television. With the way the day was going, primetime programming was likely to give me a panic attack.
On the television there was an unpleasant looking woman with big teeth and bigger earrings. “Save the whale activists have descended upon Washington,” she read, “in order to protest a bill that will make immortality legal. Trevor Nunn in on the scene, Trevor?”
A moment later, “Yes Gabriel,” he said, holding in an ear piece, “Save the whale activists demanded that the drug be abandoned due to the fact, as they put it, if human beings are allowed to survive then whales are surely going to suffer because of it. The committee that heard their spokesman, Weslen Almer, asked on what grounds did he assume that whales had more of a right to live than humans. ‘They were here first,’ Almer replied, taking the microphone into his hand. The senate committee laughed briefly and the chairman said, ‘Then possession is gauged by length of ownership?’ To which Almer responded, ‘Yes.’ To this the committee laughed and promptly took his microphone. Gabriel?”
“Thanks Trevor,” said Gabriel. “As we’re told now, The Vacuum, as people have named it, has sucked up most of the western United States. People standing at the scene, from Corpus Christi to Hallock Minnesota, say that it appears as though the earth had been a carpet that is now being rolled up. All over the world, people have been migrating away from the rapidly diminishing pieces of the planet. No one is sure why this is happening, though a pastor of a small church in Greenville has spoken out, saying, ‘See what you’ve gone and done? God is quite angry now.’ The land is fading away, but a circle is being left. The circle,” a slide of the earth was held on the screen. It was a picture of the earth: The entire globe, save for a circle of land leftover starting mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and all the states in the circle.
“At the rate of disappearing,” the woman said, “We’ll all have been wiped out within two weeks, give or take. If you’ve been saving any money, you might want to run on down to Wal-Mart’s End of the World special. Everything is half off, for a limited time only, and stores will be open twenty four hours a day for as many days as possible.”
I leapt to the phone, knocking over an ashtray, and sprinted to the living room. I jerked up the phone and dialed my home phone number. As it rung I stood around panting as sweat congealed around my forehead and beaded off. The rings were taking forever and the anxiety in my chest drew stronger.
“Hello?” said my mother in her mother’s voice.
“Mother,” I almost shouted, “There’s something very important I have to tell you.”
“How much did they set the bail at this time?” she asked.
“No!” I yelled, “I’m not in jail this time! You have to listen to me!” I was delirious and little apostrophes of foam had gathered in the corners of my mouth.
“What, Thomas?” she screamed, “What is it?”
“Mother,” I said rapidly, “Now I don’t want you to get upset and start panicking!”
“What is it, Thomas! What is it!”
“There’s a half off sale at Wal-Mart,” I whispered, trying to regain my focus as my vision blurred.
“My God!” she yelped, “How much time do we have?”
“Three weeks mother,” I said gloomily. “You must act fast.”
Elizabeth came into the room panting. I noticed the worried look in her eyes and realized it was of some urgency.
“Mother,” I said into the phone, “pick me up a box of hot wings when you go. Considering the fact that most of the world is disappearing, you might want to get the value pack. I’ll see you tonight.” I hung up the phone.
“What is it?” I asked Elizabeth as she sat down on the corner of the bed.
“There’s a door out front,” she said, “and it’s looking for us.”
“There’s a door,” I said slowly, “and it’s looking for us specifically? I don’t know any doors. And I haven’t done acid in years.”
“Yes,” she said, “follow me.”
At the front door there was a white door, bits of its paint had chipped off, and it had a golden handle.
“Come on,” said the door, “I’ve got other things to do you know.”
“Like what?” I asked, “You’re a door.”
“Well,” he said a bit wearily, “all the opening and closing is fine for a while. But you’ve got to follow your heart in the end.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, “What is it you’d rather be doing?”
“I don’t know,” the door replied, “I’d kind of like to see Rome. Set up a fish and chips shop in London, perhaps.”
“I don’t think they let doors run businesses,” I said, “but you could probably get a job out front as, say, something like a door. You’re obviously good at opening and closing.”
“You’re right,” the door chuckled, “but come on, you’re expected somewhere else.”
The door opened and Elizabeth and I stared inside. Inside it was a long black corridor. Herman was in the other room rubbing down the kittens with warm wet towels, and Elizabeth jumped across the threshold and disappeared. I looked around for my cigarettes, found them, and followed after.

Chapter 7
Mike’s Transdimensional Waffle House

“This is a bit peculiar,” Elijah said, looking around. “Where are we now?”
He took a sip of the black coffee that had been prepared for him and looked around. He was sitting at a white table, covered in menus, salt shakers, and six cups of coffee. The ceiling was a bright hue of white and the floor was checkered white and black. There were at least fifty doors on either side.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Isaac said with a smile, “but for now,” he added, “let’s have a bite to eat.”
Anne took off her glove, looked down at her left hand, and gasped. The implant in her left hand, that housed the Digitalis, was gone; her hand was back to normal.
“Look,” she said, holding up her hand, “it’s gone.”
“Here,” said a man in a grayish suit, holding a clipboard, “You have no need for Digitalis. My name is Mike,” and he added, “Welcome to my trans-dimensional waffle house. If you’re not in the mood for food,” he added, “you can order one of our tailor made dreams. The playboy mansion selection is quite popular and we just got in a brand new assortment of flying dreams. If you don’t want a waffle, order a dream. They’re the same price, of course. Falling dreams are free. Buy two dreams and get one nightmare free,” he beamed with pride.
“Excuse me?” Anne asked, a bit baffled.
“You’re at a point right now between realities. Here you can come and relax, have a cup of coffee and some mighty fine waffles, meet up with parallel versions of yourself, or simply order a dream and be about your way.”
“I want a number three combo,” Elijah spoke up, “with a blueberry waffle.”
“Excellent choice,” said Mike, writing it down, “And for you, young lady?” he looked over at Anne. Isaac was smoking a cigarette with a strange smile on his face.
“I’m really not that hungry,” she said, “the trans-dimensional warp has really made me lose my appetite.”
“It does that at first,” Mike said, “Most of the time when people come through, they’re asleep.”
“Asleep?” a man asked from behind him, slipping in through one of the numbered doors.
“Ah yes,” said Mike, “Hello Thomas. We’ve seen you hundreds of times before.”
“I’ve never been here before,” the strange man, who looked surprisingly like Elijah, replied, “But it looks vaguely familiar.”
“Of course it does,” said Mike. “You’ve passed through here while dreaming many times. Most of the people that come through here come through in their dreams, wandering so to speak, and sometimes they happen to wander in one of the other doors into another reality. Sometimes, however, they just have a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit and be on their way. It’s a specialty here.”
The young man walked over and sat down at the table with Anne, Aaron, Elijah, and Isaac. A woman, who looked surprisingly like Anne, followed behind him and sat down.
“What can I get you, Thomas?” Mike asked.
“First,” he said, “You can tell me why we’re here.”
“Of course, of course,” Mike replied, “just have a cup of coffee.”
“I can’t drink coffee,” Thomas said, “it makes me overly anxious and my chest starts to hurt. And I don’t have my medicine with me.”
“Here,” Mike said, “you need no medicine. This is a resting point between realities. Through those doors,” he pointed to the doors that lined each opposing wall, “you can walk into different realities.”
“That’s why me and that guy look the same?” Elijah asked, pointing at Thomas.
“Yes,” said Mike, “by a strange coincidence, you two were made aware of each other. And right now, your two realities are converging. The earth that Thomas is from is disappearing into the earth that Elijah is from.”
“Make believe characters are causing a lot of trouble,” Thomas said. “The Boogeyman has been harassing my mother.”
“Make believe?” asked Mike curiously, “and right now, a ‘make believe’ fellow named Jack Nicholson is causing a fuss down at Roma’s. Roma’s, of course, doesn’t exist to Thomas because it’s outside of his reality. So, to him its make believe, and since Jack Nicholson doesn’t exist inside Roma’s reality, he’s make believe. He’s make believe and he’s yelling at Roma about not having season tickets for the Lakers. Roma has no idea who the Lakers are. He offered him some chicken broth instead.”
“Chicken broth,” Thomas said with a disgusted look on his face, “that is some of the nastiest shit in any reality.”
“See!” Elijah screamed, “That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“You see,” said Mike, “Elijah and Thomas are parallel versions of each other. One is left handed, the other is right handed; the only time they ever see each other is in the mirror, but then they think they’re looking at themselves. Ever wonder why your reflection is right handed, Thomas?”
“I know why,” Thomas said, “it’s because of the reflection.”
“Nope,” Mike said, “It’s because the person you see in the reflection is right handed. Reflections have no predominant hand orientation to begin with.”
“And all the disappearances?” Elijah asked.
“There was a bridge created,” Mike replied sternly, “between your two realities. Two stories about one another connected them, and the only way to close the connection is to find the perpetrator who caused it. In this case, it’s a moth.”
“We went to a ballroom of sorts,” Thomas said, “and we saw people out of our past. Why did they go to that ballroom?”
“They’re waiting to be recycled,” said Mike. “There’s usually a waiting list, of course, and usually all of the cool bodies are taken by men of better authority.”
“They’re dead?” Elijah asked.
“Yes,” said Mike.
“They’re dead,” Thomas echoed, “but still able to play paper football?”
There was a clamor on the main counter. All members of the party looked over. Sweat dripped off Elijah and Thomas’s faces.
“What is that?” Elizabeth shouted. “Is this reality breaking down too?”
“No,” said Mike, “Elijah’s waffles are ready.”
“Nice,” Elijah said, rubbing his hands together, “I love blueberry waffles.”
“Me too!” shouted Thomas, “I’d rather have strawberry, but of course, I’m allergic to them.”
“How can there be any sort of loving god,” Elijah said as a burly man in a chef’s hat handed him his food, “and still make someone allergic to strawberries? It makes no sense.”
“Not much of anything makes any sort of sense anymore,” said Thomas.
Elizabeth, until this moment, had been sitting quietly, asked, “How can we return things back to normal?”
“Why would you want things to be normal,” Mike asked, “when things can be interesting?”
“I just want to wake up, shower, have some breakfast, and play my violin. I want to be bored, I want to sin, I want to think that none of this is possible. I just want to go back to hating my life the way it was. How can we do that?”
“Well,” Mike said, his tiny lips arching into a wry smile, “Once these fellows leave here, they’ll cross the river to the edge of the maze at Ra’s Patio. If they can get through, they can get beyond Herman’s control. Somehow he’s found a way to tap into another reality and control it. Isaac has done the same thing.”
“What?” Elijah said, dropping his fork, “What do you mean?”
“Isaac here,” Mike said, “has been writing a story about an old man with Alzheimer’s who teaches violin to Elizabeth here, and guitar to Thomas. He is in some sort of control of your reality. How do you think you found the door in the sandbox? How do you think Elizabeth regained some sort of vision? How do you think things got so out of hand?”
“Herman is doing to us,” Anne said, “what Isaac is doing to them?”
“Essentially,” Mike said, “but they’ve both lost control of their stories.”
“So, we’re just characters in a story we have no part in?” asked Thomas, “We have no real choice in what we do? We just wait to be pushed around by some asshole we’re unaware of?”
“That’s how he figures it, yes,” said Mike, “but, you were sentient a long time before he started the story. He didn’t create you, he just found you much in the same manner as Herman found them. Stories aren’t just stories,” he added,
“They’re gateways to other worlds. Just over there,” he pointed to a door marked with the symbol for omega, “you can go to the land of Oz. It’s as real as any earth, parallel or not. The Wicked Witch of the West is a demon in the bedroom, I’ve heard.”
“I’d like to see the wizard,” said Thomas. “Maybe he can give me a bigger…you know.”
“Dude!” Elijah said with a mouthful of waffles, “I asked Elizabeth here for the same thing. She thought I was disgusting.”
“If you’re anything like me,” said Thomas, “Then you really are disgusting.”
“Ha-ha!” he shouted, “We should hang out sometime.”
Thomas reached into his back pocket. There was a look of surprise on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Elizabeth asked.
“I can’t find my wallet,” he replied.
“How much money was in it?” Elijah questioned, clanging his fork.
“Around $130 or so,” Thomas said mournfully, “but, oh well. I wasn’t really hungry anyway. I probably just left it at Herman’s.”
Elizabeth was looking around with the same silly blank expression on her face when Mike bent to approach her.
“Would you like a waffle?” he asked, smiling.
“No,” she said sternly, “I’d like to get back to whichever reality I belong to.”
“Oh,” he said, “Of course. Did you learn Athalie?”
“I’m working on it now,” she said, “it’s kind of tricky.”
“Learn it,” Mike said, “and play it. Catch the moth, put him in the coffee tin, and the links will dissolve.”
“Will we have any memory of this?” Thomas asked.
“If the Janitors do their job,” Mike replied, “then none of you will remember any of this. But, sometimes, in your dreams, you’ll make your way into my humble waffle house. I’ll feed you blueberry, or even strawberries, Thomas, and send you back to your own world. Sometimes you might wake up in a reality that you don’t recognize, which means in your sleep you’ve drifted from one to another. Ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said meekly, “a few times.”
“There you have it,” Mike said, resplendent in his authority.
“I’ve got another table to attend to,” he said, pointing towards an angry group of Klingons. “They hate waffles,” Mike continued, “but I’m going to win them over sooner or later.”
He turned to walk off. Elijah shouted to him, wiping his mouth, “How do we get out of here?”
“Oh, yes,” Mike pointed to the white door with the streaks of stripped paint, “You can go back to your reality through that door. And Thomas,” he hastened to add, “You and Elizabeth can go back to yours through the door just opposite of it. Over there,” he pointed to the other door.
“One more thing,” he said, “This little faux pas has broken a really important wheel.”
“Because it holds realities together?” asked Thomas.
“No,” replied Mike, “Because it’s really expensive. The Janitors should have it up and running again soon enough, but the quicker you catch the moth – the better. Another thing,” he continued, “Once you get to Ra’s Patio, no one will be able to control you. If you can make it through, you’ll be free to ruin your life as you see fit. As for Thomas and Elizabeth, and Herman and his hummingbird, you’ll have to ask Isaac about that. I’m sorry, I’ve got another customer.”
“Who is that cross looking fellow?” Elijah asked.
“Oh,” replied Mike, “That’s Satan, and he’s a real bugger if he doesn’t have his coffee.”
He nodded to the group and walked over to the horned fellow, who sat brooding contemptuously over a menu.
“You’ll have a phone booth for us when we get to the shore, won’t you?” Elijah asked, “This is getting confusing.”
“I was about to say the same thing,” Thomas said, “but how do we get to Ra’s Patio?”
Isaac smiled, “You don’t go to Ra’s Patio. It’s not in your character to want to go.”
“What do you mean?” Thomas asked.
“If you don’t catch that moth,” Isaac replied, lighting a cigarette, “Your world will disappear completely. It will cloud up ours. We don’t need your burger joints and car dealerships.”
“I’ve read Digitalis,” said Thomas, “Your world is a wasteland.”
“And I’ve read a bit of Just a Flower,” Elijah said. “Sorry Isaac, but I knew you were hiding something. I had to figure it out. I was thrilled that you based a character on me, however. Your world, Thomas, is as much a wasteland as ours. The only difference here is that some people have hope they’ll find something better. You have no hope because you don’t care if things are better or not. You’d actually prefer the possibility that there is no Heaven or Hell, as Isaac calls the places in his little story, and you’d much rather disappear into the Make Believe Ballroom and wait to be recycled. Wouldn’t you prefer that, Thomas?”
“No,” he said with a worried look about his face, “I wish there was a Heaven that would let me in, but I can’t believe it’s there. That’s not who I am, that’s not how I was made.”
“Oh how I know that,” said Isaac. “It’s really not your fault; that’s how you were made, Thomas. Your fate was given to you. I thought it was clever at the time, but you may not like the rubber.”
Anne stood up and Aaron followed her. They walked back over to the door and Aaron, with Elijah’s bag slung over his back, disappeared through the door. Anne followed in behind him.
“Shouldn’t there be some sort of romantic interest?” Elijah asked Elizabeth,
“Wouldn’t that be good for the story?”
“What do you mean? Are you trying to seduce me with literary clichés?”
“You’re helping me out,” he said. “The girls always resist at first. If you want to be unique with it, you should just let me have it.”
She threw coffee in his face. He laughed. Thomas laughed. Elizabeth cast an angry look towards Thomas. Thomas stopped laughing. Elijah laughed harder.
Mike took them a large glass jar full of an inky, black liquid. Elijah smiled as he brought it over.
Elijah hopped over the table, motioning for Isaac, who was putting out his cigarette, and Anne, who had stared at Elizabeth most of the entire get together, and they walked together towards the door.
From one of the other doors a small band of silly looking green monsters staggered in. Mike rushed over to meet them.
“The usual?” he asked them.
Elizabeth and I sat there for a minute, staring at the door apropos the one they disappeared into. All the doors had numbers, some were written with different symbols, and some were of greater size.
A strange looking fellow in an even stranger looking cloak looked at us from behind a steaming cup of coffee. The creature must have smelled, because no one was closer than ten tables away from whatever it was. Mike had served the silly looking monsters and was hurrying back up to the counter. I called him over.
“Who’s that glum looking fellow?” I asked, gesturing.
“Death,” said Mike sternly.
“Death comes in for waffles?” I asked, “You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“Death? Waffles?” Mike glared at me, “That’s ridiculous,” he said, “Death only orders flapjacks. Never stops complaining.”
“Why does he complain?” I asked.
“Because nobody will sit with him,” Mike replied, “and with the tips he leaves, it’s no wonder.”
Of all the possible ways to arrange thoughts into sentences, letters into words – this is one line that was probably the most alien thing I had ever heard. Death has come for flapjacks, I thought, pretty strange.
A couple of regular looking people were throwing paper napkins at him and giggling. He didn’t seem pleased. He took a small pink notebook from his cloak, with a little heart on it, jotted a few lines, and looked over at them triumphantly. Suffice to say, they stopped with the spitballs immediately.
“Let’s go into a different one,” I said, smiling, “that one down at the end.”
“With the number zero?” she asked.
“That’s not a zero,” I replied, “that’s an omega symbol.”
“How much longer do you think it’ll be before the rest of earth disappears?”
“Hopefully sometime after my mother picks up those hot wings.”
“I’ve got to finish learning that Mendelssohn piece,” she said fidgety, “but other than that, I think we can peak into one of those other doors for a bit.”
Mike ran over to us shouting, “Wait!”
“Yes?” Elizabeth said.
“If you find yourself in the presence of an alien,” he said, “do not, on any account, say ‘take me to your leader.’”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it makes them angry.”
“And why does it make them so angry?”
“They assume you think they’re not upper management material.”
“Really?” Elizabeth asked.
“Then they come and complain to me, and I don’t have the staff to occupy these guys long enough to rig up something to kill them with.”
We nodded and walked off.
I guess I’d have to put aside bringing Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov and Karellen over for a cup of tea and a cigarette, but at least I’d get to get out of Herman’s stuffy apartment. As we walked past a group of imp looking midget creatures with green Mohawks and breezy short-shorts, I wondered what he was doing without us there.
I hoped he remembered to feed those kittens we found out in the woods. Knowing Herman, he’d probably try to feed it a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. He’d done the same to the hummingbird before figuring out that hummingbird’s aren’t usually inclined to bacon.
Book 4
Chapter 1
The Hungry Garage

Herman sat in the back room of his house on the Patio were the hummingbird had been. He downed the remaining bit of orange juice he had, ran his fingers through his wire-like hair, which he hadn’t washed in days. He had just hung up the telephone when it rang again.
“Yello?” he said as usual.
All he heard was loud, obnoxious laughing. His eyes teared up and he dropped the phone, deciding to leave it off the hook. He picked up his dirty stuffed rabbit and dragged it with him into the living room. He knelt behind the radiator and picked up the liter of Vodka that he usually kept hidden behind it. After filling up his glass, halfway with orange juice and halfway with vodka, he sat down in front of the television.
After fishing the remote out from the seat cushion, he flipped the television on and leaned over to pick up a shoebox full of VHS tapes, recordings of old concerts and school plays. He found the tape he was looking for and leaned over to slide it into the VCR. It clicked as he slid it in, and he leaned back.
There was a knock on the door. Startled, he put the glass of vodka down beside the chair and peaked out the peephole in the door. It was his neighbor, bluesman Murphy. He knocked again and Herman opened the door immediately.
“Murphy!” he shouted, “Come on in, bud.”
Murphy crossed the threshold wearily, carrying a shoebox.
“It’s going to be $100 this time, brother,” Murphy said, tapping on the shoebox. “Took me a while to get it, but I got it.”
“Let’s have a look at it, then,” he said, holding out his hand for it.
“Let’s have a look at that hundred dollars, brother,” said Murphy, taking off his dark sunglasses.
Herman took a small, leather wallet out of his front pocket. This was strange, Murphy thought, keeping a wallet in your front pocket. But, he considered, Herman was crazy. Crazy? Shit, thought Murphy, Herman was three shades past that.
“How much you got?” Murphy asked as Herman folded open his wallet.
“Let’s see,” he thumbed the bills over, “I’ve got $130. You said $100, right?”
“That’ll do it,” said Murphy, smiling widely.
“Just take it all,” said Herman, handing him the wallet. “You can keep the wallet, too.”
“When’d you get the new wallet?” Murphy asked, “And the generosity?”
“Don’t know,” said Herman, “I must’a found it somewhere. The generosity has always been there when I can afford it. It’s kind of hard to eat and keep the lights on with a fixed income, buddy. Time’s is tough.”
“Too kind to me, brother,” Murphy replied, stuffing it down in his pocket. “You paid the light bill already?”
“Yeah, bud,” said Herman. “Don’t worry ‘bout the money.”
He handed Herman the shoebox and picked a guitar off the floor, strumming it. Herman opened the shoebox and looked down in it. There were layers and layers of posters: there were posters of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, Charlie Rich, and Billy Sherrill. Under the glossy posters were a stack of Polaroid’s of the same groups and others less-known stars.
“I made sure I got some Townes van Zandt for ya this time, brother,” said Murphy. “I couldn’t find those young-boy pictures of Hank Williams you wanted, but I sure found you enough of that rockabilly shit you down with.”
“I appreciate it, buddy,” Herman said, taking a red Sharpie out of his pocket,
“You ever watch that video of us up in Simpsonville? I think you was on the bass, boy you were pickin’ good that day. You should come by and watch it one day when you got a chance.”
“Who them kids I see over here all the time?” Murphy asked, “You tappin’ that Filipino piece of tail? I see that tall dude always leavin’ with her, goin’ down in the woods together and shit. You thinkin’ he’s after your tail?”
“Oh, I ain’t worried about that boy,” Herman said. “I know his daddy, lives over there behind the school. But that young girl, she’s gone be mine sooner or later I reckon.”
“That’s jail time for an old boy like you, ain’t it? How old is she?”
“She says she’s eighteen, I think she said, but with an ass like hers … I’d go to jail for it. Ha! I swear I ain’t lyin.’”
“So I hear you writin’ a book, yeah? How’s that comin’ along?”
“I’m almost done with it,” Herman said, scribbling on one of the posters. “Tell you what, buddy, I wish I never started writin’ it. Causes me a lot of pain, lot of pain, I don’t remember where they goin’ sometimes, forget the colors of their eyes, their names, I can’t seem to keep track of the characters without skimming back over the pages every time I go to write.”
“You been drinkin’ again, ain’t ya? That vodka and orange juice shit again, yeah?” Murphy said sternly, “You know you ain’t supposed to be drinkin’ with your condition, man. That shit is bad news for ya. It’ll drive you outta your mind. Especially with that stuff you on for that Parkinson’s shit.”
He held up his shaking hand and looked at it, then closed his eyes. “I know,” he said, “I know, but I don’t know what else to do. They’re talking about shipping me off soon; I’ve been getting letters asking me to come down and look at the place. It’s some place down in Columbia for people ‘like me.’ It’s scary, real scary buddy, to think they gone take away everything I have and put me away for the rest of my life. Nobody will come over to say ‘hey buddy’ or ‘where you been?’ because everybody will forget me altogether. They won’t even know when I die, and if they did they wouldn’t probably care and they probably shouldn’t.”
“Whole world is goin’ to shit, brother,” conceded Murphy, pointing towards the TV. “You heard about how the world is disappearing? I even heard that some Count Chokula mother fucker robbed the liquor store up town. I’m too high and too tired and too damn old to have to worry ‘bout cereal box bandits and boogeymen crackin’ down on the neighborhood. My mama is scared as shit! Lord help us, Herman, Lord help us.”
“That’s a shame.”
“It’s a damn shame; really, I was going to tap some ass in California during the summer. Chances are, they sayin’, we won’t even be here by then. So, if you gonna finish that story, brother, you best finish it quick or you ain’t gonna finish it a’ tall.”
“You always give some good advice,” Herman said, pouring out the vodka beside his chair.
“That,” said Murphy, “that is free. Come by before the world ends, we’ll have some of my mashed potatoes.”
“Alright buddy,” said Herman, taking the guitar from Murphy as he rose, heading for the door.
“You take it easy on the vodka,” he said. “I’ll come see you tomorrow. You take it easy, brother.”
Herman waved his last goodbye and walked back to his chair, sat down. He took out the top glossy poster and scribbled on it: Herman, come see the family when you get the chance. Take it easy, brother – Townes Van Zandt. He smiled as he rubbed it across the floor for a minute. It looked older that way, and he liked them when they looked older. Made them seem more authentic.
After it was significantly dirtied, he turned it over and looked at it again. His eyes teared up and he tried to ignore his thoughts. Walking over to a stack of boxes in the corner, he put it deep under a heap of other pictures and flyers much like it.
He walked back over to his chair and sat down. For a minute he worried if Thomas’s dad ever got their power back on. He walked over to the phone. He stood there for a moment scratching his head and then picked up the phone and dialed.
He tried to call his friend Hank, but there was no answer. His power was probably still out, later, he thought, I’ll drive up there and check on him. Pick up a lantern in case the lights have gone out, maybe some canned goods, yeah, that’d do good. Real good.
He looked at the snow globe beside the phone, at the young girl that sat under the small streetlight. For a minute he thought he heard her talking to him, but he shrugged it off and dialed the phone again.
He stared down at the woman in the snow globe as the phone rung, and rung, and rung. Finally he put the phone down on the rack and stood above it thinking. Thomas was going to the store to pick up some snuff, he remembered, but he might have stopped by his house for his guitar. It’d been a while since he’d played, so Herman dialed his number. It rung, and rung, and rung, finally the answering machine picked up.
“Hey, Thomas, buddy,” he stuttered, “This is Herman. I was just wondering if you managed to pick up my snuff from the store. It’s cool if you didn’t, though, but you should come back by here before you go to sleep. I got a record I want you to check out, your daddy was on it, I remember, he was playin’ good that day. Elizabeth’s mother called her a couple of minutes ago, so if you see her tell her she has to come back here as soon as possible to call her mother because her mother’s worried about her. Well,” he paused, out of breath, “I’m going to try to finish my story tonight, I want you to check it out when I’m done. I hope you like it, and I guess I’ll see you when you get here. If you think about it, try to bring me some snuff…”
The answering machine beeped when the tape was full. He sat the phone down and wondered who else he could call. Thomas’s dad might need some help getting his lights back on. So he dialed.
“Hello?” a woman asked angrily, “Who the hell is this?”
“Oh, hey, this is Herman,” he sputtered. “I was wonderin’ if y’all needed any help getting the lights back on. I saw that they went out last night when I stopped by last night. Can I speak to Roger?”
“Look here,” the woman spat, “Roger’s here, but he don’t want to fuckin’ talk to you. Do you know what time it is?”
“No ma’am, I sure am sorry if I woke y’all up…”
“Listen,” she interrupted, “stop calling here you fucking retard. You ain’t go no business calling here for no reason.” She hung up and the dial tone filled his ear. He sat the phone down gently and walked to his back porch to feed his hummingbird. The hummingbird was sitting on the perch when he opened the screen door, and it creaked open as he stepped onto the hard wood of the back porch.
“Hey, buddy,” he said to the bird, and it fluttered up onto his nose, “I brought you somethin’ to eat.”
The bird looked at him inquisitively.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve got it in the kitchen, just for you, buddy. I swear I ain’t lyin’ to you!” He rushed into the kitchen, tearing open the door to the fridge, and took out a plate with a sandwich on it. In the other room he heard the kittens, wrapped in a towel, meowing in his bedroom.
Putting the plate down, he rushed off into the bedroom and knelt beside the towel. The kittens were still wet with the damp leaves, and their black hair was slicked back. They meowed, crawling around each other, and squirmed together.
What could he feed them? he wondered. He knew the hummingbird might eat the BLT, but he didn’t know if baby kittens would. After petting them for a minute, he ran back into the kitchen to pick up the plate with the sandwich on it.
He knelt beside the kittens, tore off a piece of the sandwich, and held it up to their little faces. They wouldn’t eat it. Herman broke down before them on the floor.
“Just eat it,” he pleaded. “Please eat it… please eat the bread. It’s good,” he took a bite, put it back up to another kitten’s mouth. “Mmm,” he exaggerated, “eat it. You got to eat, little kitties. Y’all will die, do y’all want to die? Why do you want to die?”
He put the plate down before the towel and sat there for a while, staring at them. They wouldn’t eat any of the sandwich. “Why won’t you eat?” he sobbed. “You’re going to die if you don’t. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know, and nobody’s with me.”
The TV in the other room changed channels. Herman dropped the plate and ran into the other room.
“We now believe that the source of the … vacuum, so to speak, is concentrated on a small area in the Southern United States. Top theoretical physicists believe that there might be a wormhole, or a rift, opening in the fabric of the space time continuum. Attempts were made to contact Stephen Hawking, but attempts were halted when people realized that wherever he was had probably disappeared, and in no way could anyone assume he was touring the Dixie Land for the purpose of giving lectures in theoretical physics.
“We’re getting word now,” said the snobbish looking woman on the television, “That the world is being drained like a pool of sorts. The source of the phenomena has been traced to a shed in South Carolina. In a manner of weeks, the shed will be all of known creation.”
Herman was bored by this and turned the channel looking for cartoons. Puff the Magic dragon reruns were on for a little while, so he could watch them at least. Suddenly he remembered the kittens in the other room. He paused the television, realized it wouldn’t pause, dropped the remote and ran into the other room, panting.
The sandwich hadn’t been touched; all of the kittens were dead. He stood above them staring for a minute, wondering what happened to them. Why wouldn’t they eat to save themselves? he wondered. Why wouldn’t they eat?
He knelt to the ground and broke off tiny bits of the bread and stuck it up to their little lifeless mouths. “Eat,” he said with tears in his eyes, “Please, eat.” The tiny head bobbed as he pushed the piece of bread against the kitten’s tiny mouth. He broke off a piece of bacon and pushed it against one of the other’s mouths.
“Please!” he shouted, “Please eat it. Please, kitties, come on kitties.” He took one in his hand and held it to his face, kissing it on its cold nose, crying silently with his eyes wide open, staring at the tiny towel on which they lifeless lay before him.
He picked all three of them up together, grabbed a shoebox from in the front room of his house, and headed down his back steps. There was a small rosebush at the edge of the woods, so he knelt to dig there.
He knelt under the rose bush and lay the three dead kittens before him. His face had turned blank and he dug three tiny holes as though he were mechanical and far off. “I’m sorry,” he said, wiping the dirt off his face,
“I’m sorry I let you die. I’m sorry kitties, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do, y’all should have been able to live and grow up and chase toy mice and balls of yarn and get petted and loved on, and you won’t. I’m sorry, more than I’ve ever been of anything in my life. I’m sorry.”
He placed them in their three tiny holes and covered their tiny graves. Above him the stars seemed to be moving closer towards the earth, but it had been some time since he took his medicine.
“You’re Elvis,” he said, pointing to the first little grave, “You’re Jimi,” he said, pointing to the second, “and you’ll be Joe,” he said to the last. Wiping off his pants, he headed back into the house.
The static of the television glimmered in the living room, highlighting the shadows of the piles of boxes, sending shapes high on his wall and ceiling. They scared him, the shadows did, and they always had. He pulled a beaten down blanket up over his eyes and hummed to himself quietly.
He figured then he’d try to call Hank again, something must be terribly wrong, and then he’d go back to work on his story.
“The world is being sucked into a drain,” he heard inside the static, “In a shed in South Carolina. Protestors are on the scene, threatening the shed with legal action. We go live to the scene…”
Interrupting it, he turned back to his Puff the Magic Dragon. Music calmed him a bit, and that way, he thought, he could finally get the rest of his story off his mind. The hummingbird! He remembered suddenly. Picking the plate up from the floor in his bedroom, he walked to the back porch and opened the screen door. Mike looked as though he’d been waiting for him intently.
“Still hungry, Mike?” he asked the bird.
The bird fluttered up and landed on his nose. After he fed him, he went back to sit beside his lamp to work. Hopefully, he thought, there wouldn’t be much more he had to say. In honesty, he had no idea how he’d bring his story together. He never had from the beginning, a beginning which he vaguely remembered, and he felt that it was getting to be far too jumbled to make sense to any man of moderate sanity.
Then a more terrible thought crept into his disorderly mind: people would hate everything he had to say. Nobody wants to talk to me, he thought, why would anybody want to read about anything I have to say? If people hate what I write, will they hate me? He forgot about the kittens.
He fell asleep listening to the low sound of an old VHS taping.
On the tape, he was standing in front of a moderately sized crowd wearing moderately fashionable clothes.
“And now,” an excited voice said as he watched, “all the way from Nashville, Tennessee, the home of bluegrass, Herman Prince!”
A younger Herman bounded up to the microphone. His beard was thick and full, and he had long, full hair. He was wearing blue and white plaid shorts. His shirt was a light blue color. He had an electric guitar suspended from his shoulders.
“How y’all doin’?” he asked the crowd. “Hope y’all doin’ as good as I am!”
A melancholy smile wrapped round his face when the crowd cheered loudly.
“How ‘bout some bluegrass? Or do y’all want to sing the blues?”
They cheered loudly for both suggestions. On the tape Herman laughed, taking off his dark blue trucker hat, and he said, “How about we give y’all both?”
They cheered raucously. Tears glittered in his eyes as the first notes of an Am arpeggio rang out and Murphy’s smooth bass line kicked in.
And he drifted back to that rickety stage in that rickety corner of South Carolina in his dream. The first dream he dreamt in longer than he cared to admit.
He walked up on the stage with his rickety dobro in his shaking, Parkinson’s riddled fingers. The crowd was the same: the same shirtless good ole boys with mullets and Budweiser’s, smoking cigarettes and yelling at the top of their lungs as each guitar picked out their favorite notes.
“And now,” said the same excited voice, “all the way from Whitmire, South Carolina, Herman Prince!”
Herman walked nervously over to the microphone. His beard was shaggy and thin, and his head was completely bald, reflecting the fluorescent stage lights of it as he passed. He was wearing dirty jogging pants and an orange juice stained t-shirt.
“How y’all doin’?” he shouted to the crowd again. There was no response. “Hope y’all doin’ as good as I am!”
Again there was complete silence as the entire crowd stared at him expectantly. “How ‘bout some bluegrass?” he asked again. “Or do y’all want to sing the blues?” The crowd was silent still. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He began to feel the tingle crawling in the back of his neck, making his head swimmy, and stammered. “I’m gone play y’all some music now that I know you’ll like. Well, I hope y’all will like it. A friend of mine taught me when I was ‘bout thirteen years old. He said. ‘You gone play the blues? Then play the blues, but the blues ain’t never red!’ Ha!”
The crowd stared at him. They all opened their mouths wide and laughed.
“Ha-ha!” he forced out meekly, turning to look at his band. Murphy was sitting on a stool, mouth open wide, laughing too.
“How about the bass line, Big Head?” he said to him.
He just stared at him from behind his dark, dark glasses and laughed.
“Where’d you get that guitar?” someone yelled from the crowd, bet you stole it from some kid, ain’t ya?
Then he fiddled with his dobro, trying to sit down and start playing. He pulled up a chair, sat down, and put the dobro across his lap. The first sounds of an up-tempo bluegrass note twanged off and was drowned out by the horrible hissing, dial tone noise the crowd was making.
He whipped round to look at Murphy. Murphy smiled his shark’s grin, thumbed a few bass notes, and pointed to the stage in front of Herman.
Before him on the stage was a tiny basket. There was a muffled sound coming from under the towel covering it.
The crowd continued in its pressing, loud, and stark dial tone noise. He couldn’t hear anything.
He inched over to the basket and flung the towel off. The three dead kittens were in it. He jumped back and tripped over his dobro, falling flat at Murphy’s feet.
“Help!” he shouted. “They’re going to die!”
The crowd remained motionless, clicking their tongues together, making the hideous dial tone noise.
“Help!” he shouted again, with tears streaming down his face. “Somebody please help them. They gone die, they gone…”
“Maybe they don’t like your cookin’ Herman,” Murphy said. “I don’t blame ‘em. Those sandwiches taste like Aunt Jemima’s asshole.”
He picked the kittens up one by one, stuffing them into his pockets.
“Now he’s stealing kittens!” said someone in the crowd. “First wallets, now this?”
“No!” he screamed, sitting up in his chair. The tape had winded down long ago and the friendly, upbeat bluegrass had been replaced by the hissing static sound that rippled round the screen, fizzling, making the room flicker. He looked around his empty apartment for a moment. He glanced at the piles of posters. He stared at the piles of pictures. He looked intently at all the old albums scattered across the floor.
Looking into the dark of his apartment, he’d never felt such pressing empty. He felt the absence of Thomas and Elizabeth, and remembered their faces. And he hoped, and prayed, and pleaded to the dark:
“Please,” he spoke aloud, “please bring them back.”
He crawled back into his chair after getting a glass of orange juice. No vodka this time, just a tall glass of orange juice and five Tylenol PM’s.
He pulled the linty quilt back over his head and drifted off to sleep again. This time he didn’t dream at all.
.Chapter 2
The Ashtray Universe

We stood at the door for a minute, looking down at the handle nervously.
“Mike,” I called over to him, after he refilled Satan’s coffee cup. He rushed over and bowed, “How may I help you sir?”
“When we want to leave one of the other realities and come back here,” I said, “How do we get back to your fine waffle house here?”
“Easy,” he said, “just order a number three combo, and the door will appear behind you.”
“What’s a number three combo?” I asked.
“Just say, ‘I’d like a number three combo,’ and you’ll see the door. But if you die in there, you go to the ballroom.”
I nodded and we walked over to the door. The golden handle was significantly cold to the touch. I opened it and stood aside, allowing Elizabeth to go in first. “It might be dangerous,” I said. “so, you go first.” She disappeared inside and I followed after.
Inside the inky smoke-filled darkness, inside the Omega door, all we saw was a seedy looking darkness. There was the faint smell of smoke, cigarette smoke, and the stuffy room was filled with a violent sounding hiss-like scream. All around us we saw bobbing beads of light.
“Do you smell that?” she asked, “Smells like cigarettes.”
I sniffed the air momentarily, “Cigarettes,” I said. “Menthol, I should’ve known.”
The floor below our feet was plastic and had a soot-like feel to it. The same muffled shouts, hissing, and shrieking wrapped around us.
I struck my lighter and looked around. The glimmers of burning red that glittered far off in the dark were cigarette butts. They were all screaming as their ends burnt down. Small groups huddled together. There were longer butts that burnt more slowly, and in those groups were even smaller butts that burnt and screamed.
Then I imagined being a cigarette, living my entire life inside an ashtray, and forever trying to climb up walls too high by design for me to ever try to climb. Imagine waking up as a cigarette butt, burning leaf by leaf away in an ashtray with walls too high to climb. Just burning, squirming, and scrunching up as each piece of tobacco falls away.
We were cigarette butts and we were burning in an ashtray. Elizabeth told me that everything was fine, even as each separate ember of her tobacco hair flickered off. Everything was fine, we thought, but we kept burning; and every cigarette butt in this world burnt as we did. Their world was made for them, they said, and as they burnt they hunched together and sang strange songs of praise and admiration.
Thou art merciful! They yelled, Praise be to thee.
On every wall the butts tried to make their way out of the ashtray, the whole of known creation, only to be flicked right back down into the heap of soot and ash that covered their planets surface. There was a high pitched shrieking as they withered down, withered away, and finally burnt out.
I tried to crawl over the edges with them, over the edge of the monstrously sized tray, and by giant hands we were flicked back down into the pit, screaming with our hair on fire. One thing was certain, I didn’t want to be here much longer.
“We have to get the hell out of here,” I said to Elizabeth, frightened as small bits of my face and eye sockets flared when the burning butts passed beside me, squirming with the same piercing, high pitched squeal.
“I’d like a number three combo,” I said, “with no pickles.”
The door appeared behind us on the wall of the ashtray. The other butts perked up, and began slinking their way towards us. We slid out the other side and stumbled into Mike’s trans-dimensional waffle house and dream factory.
“Nobody likes that one,” Mike said, serving a small group of odd colored zebras. “You should try thirty seven.”
“I can’t imagine how terrible it must be to spend a lifetime in that ashtray,” I said, wiping soot off my clothes, “I’d hate to live in a world like that.”
“Would you?” Mike asked, “Your world is more like that than you think.”
“If I was on fire,” I said, “I think I’d notice.”
“You might not be on fire,” Mike replied, “but you’re burning out, all the same.”
“Good point.”
“What’s in thirty seven?” Elizabeth asked.
“Ah,” said Mike, “Universe thirty seven is whatever you wish for it to be.”
“That sounds a bit clichéd,” I said.
“Reality is a bit clichéd,” said Mike. “Anything constant is, basically.”
“Thwapt, thwapt, thwapt,” I said, “Let’s just go to it, Elizabeth.”
“Enjoy,” said Mike, “in the meantime, you sure you don’t want a waffle or a cup of coffee or anything like that?”
“Yes,” I shouted, “we’re sure.”
We walked across the diner and stood in front of a pinkish door with the same, uniform golden handle.
“Ready?” I asked. Elizabeth nodded, and I opened the door.
Inside there was nothing but sand for as far as I could see. There were huge scoops out of the ground in places, and beside them were tractors, bulldozers, and other such equipment. Shovels lined the outside of the random holes.
In the distances was a ghostlike outline of a giant mill of sorts. In front of the ghostlike mill were ghostlike people, or shadows of them, walking back and forth carrying ghostlike pieces of lumber, two by fours, and other such equipment. It looked eerily familiar to the construction job I’d had earlier in the year, when I worked with my dad. Hammers in the winter, shovels in the summer, blisters all year long.
“Some fantasy,” I shouted. “This is the opposite of fantasy, Mike.”
King Prick himself, in his omnipotent glory, rolled up on his prowler and threw me a shovel. “Dig this ditch,” he shouted, “or you’re fired.”
“Swallow my asshole,” I said, “or I’ll break your neck.”
King Prick jumped off his tractor like prowler cart and walked towards me on all fours. He sniffed at my feet, looked up, and crawled around behind me.
“Hey!” I shouted as his teeth sunk in, “I was kidding. Don’t swallow anything on me.”
“Yes master,” he shouted, “Anything you’d like me to do?”
“How about you dig a seventy foot deep ditch,” I said, lighting a cigarette, “and then, make sure it’s too steep for you to climb out of it.”
“Yes sir!” he shouted, frolicking off on all fours. The ghostlike mill and ghostlike people were still busying themselves about, and ghostlike smoke drifted out of the ghostlike chimneys.
“Hey, King Prick,” I shouted, “Come here.”
He ran up to me like a trusty old beagle dog.
“Take me to the mill,” I said, and climbed on his back.
“Yes sir!” he shouted, and we galloped off towards the mill.
Riding up, all of the people saw me and rushed to appear as though they were busier than they actually were. And I felt the most intense joy I’d ever felt; I had become exactly what I hated, and realized why I hated it. I hated the prospect of anybody having more fun than me.
“Elizabeth?” I called out, as a group of hardhat wearing construction workers were dragging palm trees over to fan me off with, “Come here.”
She appeared immediately. She wasn’t wearing her usual subdued clothes, however, and instead was wearing a black bikini and had a large albino python draped round her shoulders. She was carrying a strawberry daiquiri.
“Your liege,” she said, bowing, “Is there anything more I can get to service the master of all creation? Lord of Lords? The Man with the Biggest Penis on Earth or Alternate Reality?”
“Dance around a bit with that snake,” I said, “but don’t hold back on the compliments.”
She danced around a bit, and some of the construction workers managed to take off their hardhats and observe with me. All of the sudden a freakish rain storm broke out, soaking her with water. I gave all of the other workers time off to watch.
A large, ghostlike man was standing beside me humming the Arabian flute noise when the rain clouds went away.
It was kind of pathetic really. My most endearing fantasy being a small group of construction workers having a terrible time servicing me. If asked, I probably would’ve said my fantasy was to be immortal and explore the universe forever and ever. But, it seemed as though my mind found it more pressing to have a large group of rednecks servicing me while a cream-colored girl from the Virgin Islands danced around with a snake. Not quite as noble, I know, but it sure seemed to be more fun than anybody in the whole of creation should be allowed to have.
Then I had the terrible thought that someone somewhere was having more fun than I was.
“King Prick!” I shouted, “Do something terrible.”
“Like what?” he asked pleadingly. “I could set the mill on fire.”
“Do that,” I said, “but lock all the workers inside it first. And,” I added, “include yourself.”
“Yes sir!” he shouted.
“No, god damn,” I yelled. “It’s not fun for me if you don’t mind. If you don’t mind destroying yourself, then how am I to get any sort of satisfaction out of it?”
“I don’t know, my liege,” he said. “Want me to just stand around punching myself for a while?”
“I appreciate that,” I said sadly, “and it’s very sweet of you to ask.”
“I’ll do it,” he said. “I don’t mind at all.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and that’s the problem. This fantasy is terrible.”
I hoped that Elizabeth’s fantasy was going more horribly than mine was. But there was an even more unsettling thought about it all: I was a regular person, it seemed, with enough testosterone to fill a small planet and three of its orbiting satellites. It’s a terrible feeling for a man, I believe, to feel ordinary. There is nothing more crushing in the whole of human existence than realizing that you’re ordinary. But I took solace in the fact that ninety percent of the species to which I belonged was just as ordinary as me. Hopefully, they hated it as much as I did.
“I’d like a number three combo,” I said, taking one last look over the sand covered expanse, “and make it quick.”
The same pinkish door appeared behind me, and I hastened to it and disappeared back into the waffle house.
“Enjoy it?” Mike asked as I appeared on the other side.
“I have a new found disrespect for myself,” I said, “so, in a way … I guess I did enjoy it.”
“Everybody comes out of there hating themselves,” he said. “Elizabeth has been out for five minutes now, crying too.”
This made me feel a lot better, and when I noticed it made me feel better to hear that she felt worse it made me feel a lot worse than I had previously.
“She’s been waiting on you,” he said, “hoping you had a worse time than she did.”
“Who shit in your cereal?” I asked, coming up behind her. “Why did you hate it?”
“You’re an arrogant man.”
“Arrogance,” I said, “is having the only approval you’ll ever need.”
“Well,” she said, taking a sip of coffee, “it was terrible. I’m sorry I ever tried to change you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everybody was hopeful,” she began. “When I went in, everybody on earth was confined to a hospital. Everybody had terminal cancer, but none of them would acknowledge how terrible their life was. It was as though the cancer didn’t matter to them, because they all believed they’d be saved magically at the last moment before their heart monitor stopped.
“And I was just a nurse, nothing more than a nurse. I walked from room to room asking them to take their medicine, but none of them would. ‘We don’t need medicine,’ they’d say, ‘we have hope!’
“After fifty thousand or so people died, happily I might add, I decided it was a terrible thing to have so much hope and so little a grip on reality. So, I’m sorry I tried to force you to have any hope. Now I’m pretty much hopeless about everything.”
“You must feel terrible,” I said.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Good!” I shouted, “You think I choose to be hopeless when it comes to everything? No, it doesn’t cheer me to see no hope in anything I do. It’s terrible to live without hope, but I didn’t choose to live that way.”
“You’re saying you have no free will,” she said.
“I have free will,” I said, “but I was made to be a certain way. I can choose within predefined parameters, I guess. Like a robot made to wash a car, so to speak, can only choose how he wishes to wash the car. I can only choose how I wish to be hopeless. That’s my flaw, basically. Well, I have a lot more than one, but that seems to be one of the prevalent characteristics of my personality.”
“You’re an asshole, too,” she added, sipping her coffee.
“That,” I said, “I agree with completely.”
“Satan has been sitting over there the entire time,” she said, pointing to the gloomy angel, whose wings were folded over morosely, “He hasn’t left once. He just orders coffee so he can complain about it, and send Mike back and forth to the kitchen.”
“Let’s go talk to him,” I said, getting up.
“I’m not going to talk to the devil,” she said. “My mother always says I hang out with the wrong people, and now you’re trying to force me to have coffee with Satan?”
“Stop being such a pussy,” I said, walking over.
I walked over to him and introduced myself.
“Hi,” I said cheerfully, “I’m Thomas.”
“Tell your friend I’m not going to be mean to her,” he said. “She can come over too. It’s like nobody wants to talk to me anymore. I really should try to find a better job.”
“Elizabeth!” I shouted. “He promises he’ll be nice.”
“Fine, god!” she shouted, and walked over. I scooted against the wall and she sat beside one of the aisles. He took up the whole other side of the booth; his skin was a dark red color, as always, and his giant wings were folded over behind him. He sipped caustically at his coffee.
“How’s it going?” I asked the devil.
“Terrible,” he said. “Why do you think I’ve been here for so long?”
“How long have you been here?” Elizabeth asked.
“Going on three years now,” he said. “Funny, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Psychology is a grand weapon against human beings. Every time they’d make a mistake, for hundreds of years, I’d be there to whack them over the head with a stick. Now, they’re too afraid of the stick to make a mistake, so I don’t even have to stand over them now. Their fear controls them, not me. Ha!”
“That’s brilliant,” I said. “You know, I’ve always thought of you as a slave.”
“What!” shouted Satan. “A slave? What the hell do you mean?”
“You’re essentially an agent that represents a faceless conglomerate.”
“I am Lord of all that is evil!” he shouted, “I’ll set you on fire! Don’t think I won’t.” He stared me down as though we were dueling in the old west.
“Look, you’ve got it all wrong, Mr. Darkness,” I said. “Look at it like this.” He stared at me with curiosity.
“If you wanted to be really evil,” I explained, “you’d have to stop torturing people in hell.”
“What?” he and Elizabeth asked in chorus.
“I’ve been torturing people for thousands of years,” he said. “I just kind of phone it in now, you know.”
“I understand that,” I said, “but, in punishing people, you’re not being evil. You’re being obedient.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, leaning in.
“You’re being obedient to god when you punish people in hell,” I said.
“God! Don’t get me started on that bloke!” he shouted, tiny maelstrom fires glared in his fierce dark eyes.
“Look!” I said, trying to calm him down. “God uses you because he needs you to produce goodness. You mentioned it yourself. God doesn’t worry about people breaking his rules, because when somebody breaks his rules, you whack them over the head.”
“Go on,” said Satan.
“If you didn’t punish people for breaking God’s rules,” I continued, “religion would be nullified. If you’re punishing people for breaking his rules, aren’t you working together? Look at it like it’s a small company. God makes the rules, and you enforce his rules by punishing people that break them. God is the mall company, and you’re the rent-a-cop that whacks people with sticks when they shoplift.”
“So you’re not God’s eternal enemy, are you? You’re his bulldog. He buys and pays for faith with fear. So God is the prison and you’re the prison guard. If you really wanted to rebel, you’d just stop torturing people altogether. What is law without someone to enforce it? It’s still there, of course. It’s just nullified. People would continue to fear you, because they wouldn’t know that you’d stopped torturing people. If you made hell a place of eternal fun and sun, do you realize how many people would obey God?”
“Very few,” he said.
“Exactly,” I replied, “and do you know how pissed he’d be to find that people would rather sin and sin their little heads off and still be rewarded than pray and eat cabbage just to go to a place of equal value? Nobody would care about the rules, because there’s no punishment for breaking them.”
“That’s brilliant,” said Satan. “I’ll email him in the morning and tell him I quit.”
“Look what you’ve done,” said Elizabeth. “God is going to be pretty pissed off at you.”
“Where’s he going to send me?” I asked, looking over at Satan, “to hell?” Satan roared with laughter.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve been looking for someone with upper management material. You just might be the man I’m looking for. Want to come in for an interview?”
“Wouldn’t I have to die first?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “technically, yes. How much longer do you want to live?”
“Hmm,” I pondered, “long enough to have sex with Elizabeth here.” She tried to slap me and he froze her hand in the air.
“Want me to possess her so she’ll do it?” he asked, rubbing his stubbly goatee.
“You can do that?” I asked inquisitively.
“Sure,” he said, “I’ve done worse.”
“Such as?”
“I invented marriage,” he said, “and the Department of Motor Vehicles, and I own a small fake plant business in Utah.”
“I knew it!” I shouted. “That’s brilliant.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I got an award for that in Pain and Peril weekly.”
“Well,” I said, getting up, “we’ve really got to run. Got some realities to save, waffles to eat, you know, the usual. Can I get your autograph?”
“Sure,” he said, “who should I make it out to?”
I handed him a piece of paper napkin.
“To Thomas,” I said as he wrote, “the biggest asshole I’ve yet encountered. Your pal, Satan.”
“Here you go,” he said, extending his hand. I looked down at it nervously.
“Oh bugger off,” he said, “its not hot.”
I shook his hand and said, “See you soon.”
“I’ll leave the lights on for you,” he said.
“Forget the lights,” I replied. “How about some air conditioning?”
“That’s an unfair stereotype,” he scoffed. “Hell is always at an acceptable temperature. All of that propaganda about hell being hot is unfair. When that reporter visited the central air was broken. The front offices explained it to her, told her it was being fixed, and of course she put in a bit of exaggeration for the sake of the papers. I take solace in knowing she’s going to be hit by a bus.”
“See?” I said. “You have to look on the bright side of things.” Elizabeth unfroze.
“I assume you had something to do with this,” she said to Satan.
“You see this shit, Thomas?” he snapped. “People blame all of their problems on me. I’m just an ex-archangel trying to make a living and you see how people treat me? I’ve got children to feed.”
“Where’d you get the children?” Elizabeth asked.
“Some guy,” he said, “but that’s not the point. I’m responsible for them.” Elizabeth stormed off and I followed.
“Nice fella,” I said as we walked back towards Mike. “I wonder if he’s any good at playing guitar.”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I’ve heard he’s a mean fiddle player.”
I laughed a bit and we walked over to the counter. Mike was on the phone with someone when we approached him. “Gotta go,” he said, hanging up. “Yes?” he turned to us.
“It’s been nice staying here,” I said, “but I guess we’ve got to go back to our reality now.”
“You sure about that?” he asked. “I think we might have something you’d be interested in.”
“What’s that?”
“There’s a reality that exists that differs from your own in only one way.”
“Which is?”
“You never went to Herman’s house for guitar lessons. So, there’s no coffee tin with a world under it, no random phone calls from Sherlock Holmes, no Boogeymen or women, and the world isn’t disappearing into a small, poorly kept garage in South Carolina. So, you have the obvious choice: do you want things to be normal, or interesting?”
Elizabeth and I looked at one another for a moment.
“What will happen to our world if we leave?” I asked.
“It will disappear completely,” he said. “A shame, really. We get a lot of business from your world.”
“I say we go to it,” said Elizabeth. “It’s not our fault the whole world is going to hell.”
“You can go,” I said, “but I’m going back to ours.”
“Why?” she asked. “You were miserable there.”
“And that’s just how I like it.”
I laughed and strolled off to the door back into our reality. Elizabeth followed after me. Mike followed after her.
“Which door is it to the other world?” she asked.
“Its right beside yours,” said Mike.
I stood in front of ours and she stood beside me, facing the door to the alternate reality most related to ours.
“Wait,” she said, “What’s this?” she pointed to the door. Mike ran up beside her.
“Oh,” he said sadly, “I’m afraid this universe is temporarily out of order. You could check back in a couple of days.”
“These are the only universes you have?” I asked, “Shouldn’t there be an infinite number of different realities and universes and all that?”
“Well,” he started.
“And for every possible reaction… it’s played out in a different alternate reality?”
“And you…”
“Listen!” he said, almost dropping his cup. “There are. We could only get these because they were on sale. The rest are down at the mall.” He hung his head dejectedly, tears streamed down his cheek.
“Where could we find the bathroom?” I asked.
“Employees only, but,” he added, “there’s a universe of beings that resemble toilets. I hear they get mad when someone grabs their ears. Looks like a handle.”
“Why don’t they come here?” Elizabeth asked him.
“Policy,” he said, “We don’t serve toilets here.”
“Well,” I said, “why would they get mad about someone pulling their ear? They’ve already got a mouthful of shit.”
“That’s their primary source of nutrients,” Mike replied, “and for liquids…”
“I get it,” Elizabeth said to him. “Let’s go,” she said to me, “Thanks for the help, coffee, confusing advice, and waffles,” she said to Mike, as we vanished back into our world.
Chapter 3
Sam’s Fireflies

“That man sure was handsome,” said Elijah as they spilled back out into their world, just outside the house of mirrors.
“It was you,” said Anne, annoyed.
“That’s what I’m saying!” yelled Elijah, laughing. Aaron just looked as morose and annoyed as usual, not saying much. Isaac had sat down to write in his little notebook.
“Give me that bag,” Elijah said to Aaron. “I want to see what that magic box has to say.”
Aaron unrolled the grey burlap sack, hoisted the magic box out of it, and handed it to Elijah. Elijah sat it on the ground and backed away a bit, staring at it. The screen was blank. Elijah, annoyed, slapped at the top of it a few times and huffed, walking down towards the edge of the River.
Looking down towards the long, Vanishing River, Isaac felt his heart drop. He thought of all the people that had disappeared into it, turning into little green silhouettes in the water, grasping at the Ferry Man’s boat as they trudged across the waters.
There was a long line before the dock. Normally, the only people that crossed were in small groups, similar to Elijah’s, but these people wore casual suits and had on ties, nice hair, and even stylish shoes.
“Who are all those people?” Isaac asked Elijah, who sat before the box, thumping it angrily and turning the dials.
“Eh,” said Elijah, “Do you have to ask me everything? If you don’t know the answer, chances are I’m not going to. So, I’m going to play with my magic box some more. How about you go play somewhere?”
“And you can play with your pink slipper when we go to sleep,” Isaac said, chuckling.
Elijah looked over at him angrily, then rose to his feet, and walked over to him. “What did you say?” he shouted at him, inches from his face, with perspiration rushing down his forehead.
Aaron jumped up and ran over to stand between them.
“Hey, okay, stop,” he said. “The mouth of the maze is on the other side of that river. Then we’ll all go our separate ways.”
Isaac smiled as Elijah backed away.
“Look at your hand,” Isaac said. “Your vial is completely empty.”
Elijah’s eyes widened with fear when he realized the tiny cylindrical vial in his left hand was empty.
“Aaron,” he shouted, “you have the glass jar that Mike gave us, right?”
“Yeah, man,” he said, “Here.” He handed him the tall glass of Digitalis. Elijah sat down and twisted the top off of it in a great hurry.
He took a small syringe out of his jacket pocket, stuck it through the top of the jar, and withdrew the inky, black Digitalis into it. He folded over a small panel in his palm, and stuck the needle in. A smile crept over his face as it flooded into the vial that hung inside his palm. The tiny pistons began to hum, whirring like a tea-kettle. His eyes swelled up, large and black, and he lay his head back against the ground.
Isaac decided he’d fill up too. “Anne,” he said, “Come here.”
She rushed over to him, taking off her long, black glove, and handing him her hand. He fished a small syringe out of his pocket and stuck it down into the top of the jar. He withdrew the Digitalis into the syringe, pulled back the small injection panel in Anne’s palm, and filled her vial full. Aaron came up to him and he repeated the process until Aaron’s vial was full, and then his own.
After filling up, they lay about together in a circle for a moment. Elijah stared across the river at the tall lighthouse above the maze to Ra’s Patio. He thought for a while of what he saw in the mirrors of the house in the carnival grounds.
He saw himself as the kid he was before he left to wander in the wild, before coming to Roma’s and meeting Isaac.
He saw in the mirror the way by which they acquired two of the last horses in existence.
That was the time when he met Isaac. He had been told in the woods of a place to find Digitalis and maybe some food. From his home in the meadows he had taken enough food to last him, before he managed to get his hand implant. He was forced to get one as the air grew thinner.
Roma found him in a dying garden behind the warehouse, brought him in, and put the implant in his hand. When he woke, Roma was standing above him with his large, gaping grin.
“Welcome back,” he said to the young man, who was not yet past his youth at the time. “You will be able to breathe a lot easier now,” Roma said and tapped the glass inside his left palm. “Of course,” Roma chuckled, “breathing has been known to have unpleasant side effects.”
“There’s another young man I found that I want you to head off with,” Roma told him. “I know where you kids can find some horses. Giddy-up, giddy-up, like the man in the posters, yes? This man don’t talk too much, mind you, I found him out in the woods just on the other side of the four Piles. His daughter was with him, but she died before we could get her implant in. That’s why he don’t talk too much, but he writes interesting little stories.”
Elijah sat up, looking at Roma, and asked weakly, “Where can we get the horses?” Roma called Isaac in and sat them down together. He told them of the farm not too far from the junction between the middle-eastern territories. There was a man who lived there, said Roma, who had two horses in his basement. He was waiting on the right offer for them, which was one hundred gallons of Digitalis. Roma had a better idea.
Elijah and Isaac went to the man’s home, taking with them two fully loaded pistols. Both of which were still with Isaac and Elijah now.
Elijah took with him as well, in a wheelbarrow, a giant drum full of ink. It looked almost like Digitalis, and would work for the time period the man would be allowed to observe it. Elijah knocked on the front door to distract the man as Isaac went round back to break into the house.
“We hear you have a couple of horses?” Elijah asked the man in his youthful twang, “We’ve got one hundred gallons of Digitalis for you, and would like to make the trade.”
The man opened the door suspiciously and looked into the wheelbarrow that Elijah dragged behind him.
“One hundred gallons?” said the old man, licking his chapped lips, “I give you eight horses if I had ‘em for one hundred gallons.”
The man was at least in his twilight years, not too long from now, Elijah remembered thinking, he’d walk down that long white hall, with those transparent paintings on the wall, and have to enter into whatever lay locked behind the door at the end of the hallway.
“One hundred gallons,” Elijah repeated. The man was licking his lips when the gunshot rang out. Isaac shot him firmly in the back of the head, and the blood splattered onto Elijah’s face. The old man slumped down, his eyes in the back of his head, and fell before Elijah’s feet. The horses, now dead somewhere near the old mill, were theirs.
“I like what he’s done with his hair,” Elijah said as Isaac stepped cross the threshold.
“Agreed,” said Isaac, “the red suits him.”
Thinking back of this, laying just along the shore of the River, Elijah felt the familiar pang of guilt inside his chest. In his head, he heard the woman, behind her podium, yelling down at him.
Murderer, rang out inside his head, you are a murderer!
Of course, he thought, I might be a murderer, but damn am I attractive. Especially in that rugged, outlaw way.
He closed his eyes and looked up at her, resplendent in her joy atop the podium. Behind that podium, the woman’s bony face loomed. Omnipotent, perhaps, but he bet she had a cute ass. His arrogance surprised him at times.
“I only did what I had to do,” he shouted up at her as his chains clanged together noisily. “I had to do it.”
Murderer, he heard, murder. He tried to block it out.
The skeletal jury beside the empty witness stand rang out in laughter. The same terrible clicking noise that Elijah heard everywhere he went.
“That’s what you say about everything,” said the woman. “You have to, sooner or later, take responsibility for what you do in the world. You do have a choice.”
“Yes,” Elijah shouted out, startling Anne, who lay staring at the dark grey clouds that drifted by, “I can choose to live or die, and sometimes that choice means someone else might have to die so that I might live.”
“Guilty!” she shouted, and the jury tilted back their heads, clicking their teeth together and howling with their hollow laughter.
Elijah opened his eyes, looking out across the bleak horizon. In the distance he saw ghostlike shapes of tall, tall buildings. The likes of which Sam talked about in front of Roma’s. In the grey sky he saw a dark grey ghost behind a dark grey cloud drift by; it looked like a giant, metallic bird without wings.
You are a murderer, he heard again, and you will be judged.
In the mirrors, too, he remembered seeing the lonely pink slipper resting at the end of his muddied walkway on the farm. He had it with him still, folded in his back pocket. In honesty, he didn’t know why he kept it; every time he looked at it, he felt the immense guilt swell up in him again, making his chest twinge and pulse.
The entire lands in earlier days had been more silent, eerily silent most of the time, but now they heard muffled conversation arise in all the rolling hills about them.
In front of the dock, the ferry man was waiting for them with his boat. No phone booth yet, he observed, climbing to his feet.
“Come on,” he said to the others, who still lay staring dreamily up at the sky, obviously reflecting over whatever horror they witnessed in the house of mirrors.
“The phone booth still isn’t here,” he said as the others climbed to their feet. “I guess we’ll have to find our own way into Heaven, as Isaac calls it.”
Then he heard the electric static of the magic box cough and gargle in his burlap sack.
“Elijah?” said Aaron, setting it down and unwrapping it. “It’s on again.” Elijah walked over to it and knelt down, staring at it.
“And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven,” said the same man at the same desk beside the same wafting palm trees.
“How we must be like Elijah,” said the box, “and to make it where we want to go, we have to cast off our ties with the world. Such sadness has no place in heaven.”
“What the fuck?” Elijah shouted. “Tell me what to do!”
“All our earthly ties,” the man continued, “must be cast aside, if we’re ever to see the Master’s kingdom.”
Elijah felt the slipper in his back pocket when he sat down. Then the terrible thought of what the box was telling him to do seized him; he would have to throw it away if he was ever going to make it into Ra’s Patio.
Anne remembered her snow globe and felt the glass inside her pocket. She took it out, tapped it a few times, and looked:
All she saw inside it was a seedy looking darkness, dotted with glowing red spots that bobbed round and round. She heard a terrible hissing, screaming noise, so she tucked it away.
Aaron didn’t remember having anything of what his life was before he came to be with Elijah and Isaac, and had no real idea of why it happened. All he wanted to do was be free of them, once and for all, and never have to feel like a slave again. This was his picture of Ra’s Portico: there’d be a long, long beach full of blue and lolling waves, the kind that Sam spoke of down at Roma’s, and the birds would be alive. They’d float through the air peacefully, and he’d sit on the shore against a tree and rest and rest and rest in utter calm. With no worry of where he was going or where he was from or why it mattered to begin with to tear into his mind to weary him.
Elijah saw a much different version of Ra’s Patio: he saw his pasture as it was before he had to eat his animals. They were alive and running playfully as they had before his mother disappeared into the dying forests. He sat amongst them in the pasture with his head reclined, staring upward at a sky that allowed Sam’s Fireflies to peak through.
Fireflies, said Sam, once peaked through the dark of night. Sometimes they winked, sometimes they shot across the black bowl of night, but they were always there.
He hoped in spite of himself, that when he fell at the shore of Ra’s Patio that he’d be able to see Sam’s Fireflies.
As for Anne, she saw herself alone at the shore of a dark stream. It was night there, when she saw it, and when she saw it in her dreams, but there were those glittering bugs she used to see as a kid. They’d float above the water and she would sit there by the shore, looking down into it. That’s what she saw.
Isaac imagined lots of things. He imagined a world with a sun that shone and huge, connected human civilizations. He imaged a world connected to his by a moth, he imagined a trans-dimensional coffee house, crying quarters, and everything else; he could not, however, imagine what it’d look like on the shore of Ra’s Patio.
The mouth was wide open as has been said. They could see it across the river; in front of it they saw the motionless statues standing before it. Of which there were four, four ways by which they could enter into the long, long maze that led up to Ra’s Patio. The end of the maze was a place were the sun shined, where everything was right.
Isaac looked out across the rivers with wistful eyes. He stood remembering what he saw in the house of mirrors.
Anne had stayed behind, he remembered, and was thankful of that. As had the others, he saw a much younger and happier version of himself. He was sitting in a chair with a young girl with blonde, curly hair, and he was reading her a story. He knelt before the mirror to listen:
“There were once two best friends,” Isaac told the young girl. “One was black and one was white. One was wrong and one was right. One was born at day and one was born at night. They came to the same place, and waited to be told where to go.
“They stood before a sliding glass window waiting on a receptionist. The receptionist called their names, and they walked up to the window. ‘You both have to go to the same place,’ said the receptionist. ‘How you go, is up to you.’
“So they left together and stood outside the waiting room, looking at the new, unvaryingly strange world before them, and one went left and one went right.
“The one that went left walked for eighty years by himself, through jungles, through cities, through alleys and wastelands. Finally he found himself at the edge of the city he was supposed to go to.’
“He stood at the gateway and wondered where his friend was. He was late. Maybe he got lost, maybe he got killed, or maybe he gave up. That was there one purpose, you see, to get to this place, so the other decided to wait on his friend.
“Twenty years past and his friend arrived. He rushes to him and says, ‘What took you so long? I thought you had died! I thought you had given up!’ His friend looks at him and says, ‘I’ll tell you everything that brought me here,’ and to his friend he said, ‘I’ll tell you everything that brought me here, too.’
“They came together again, at the gateway, after having been apart all of their lives and realized: their roads didn’t matter, because in the end they were together regardless.”
Then Isaac in the mirror looked down into his young girl’s hair, noticing she was asleep, and closed the book. Isaac thought of this as he walked down towards the shore. Anne and Aaron and Elijah walked behind him.
Aaron saw a man standing in a hallway with thousands of golden moths spilling out of his mouth.
The people that had popped into sight beside the River had left. They, thousands of them, were marching off towards the wastelands in the north as Elijah and his group passed them.
They nodded as they walked. Tall buildings had rose from the ground, light posts, and tall posts with long wires connected together had sprouted from the cold, wintry ground. The ground had been not too long ago covered completely in snow. It used to snow all the time, but for some reason it had abruptly stopped. Now it was snowing again.
The shore the splintered dock hung on was long and beige, with pebbled specks of white sand strewn about the shore. The water had the greenish tint to it that everybody said it had.
At the dock there was a boat; the boat would hold roughly eight to ten people, and it was long, curved at both ends.
On the other side of the River, the maze loomed like giant figures in the mist that hung above the River. The Ferry Man stood at the front of the boat smoking a pipe.
All the hedges were trimmed perfectly, Elijah observed angrily, and the sheer size of them and the terrible thought of how high above him they loomed sent a shiver through him. This made him greatly ashamed of himself, so he dedicated the boat ride exclusively to spending time thinking of new and more efficient ways to hate himself.
Far off on the horizon, where the River disappeared into the yawning sky, small bits of blue and yellow electricity danced about inside the clouds. The backdrop of the atmosphere was it’s forever melancholy grey, but everyone that got used to it, as drab as it was, came to love it.
They approached the boat quietly, calmly. Elijah heard the judge in the back of his head again. He gave himself a brutal whack across the back of his head.
“You, sir,” said the Ferry Man, “no one is to use physical violence on my boat. If someone’s going to get a nice wallop over the head, I’ll be the one to deliver it.”
“Understood,” Elijah replied as they all four stepped onto the boat.
“Three quarters,” said the man, “and I’ll take you to paradise.”
Anne pulled the three depressed quarters from her pocket. She looked at them; they were still frowning. She handed them over knowing she wouldn’t be able to contact Elizabeth for any sort of help. Their only hope would be Aaron’s Styrofoam cup, and if they could still send messages through it. They, all four together, climbed into the boat.
It bobbed up and down uneasily. The man put his pipe away in a brown sash slung from his waist, walked to the back of the boat, and untied the thick rope from the dock. A moment later, they were drifting across the Vanishing River’s; they had a chance to see all the faces of those that disappeared and died in greenish silhouettes.
“Don’t look at them,” said the Ferry Man. “You’ll never be able to forget them. It’s easier if you ignore them.”
Along the back of the boat, one of the greenish silhouettes had groped its way over the hardened back of the boat and with pale outlines as fingers clutched the tail in his hands.
His mouth was O shaped, open wide; his bawling words embarrassed everybody on the boat. Anne closed her eyes and pushed him back down into the water.
At a glance, they could see the faces of many people that had disappeared or died. Bobbing in the waves beside the boat Isaac saw a young girl named Isabella. His young Issa, the young girl that died the day Roma saved him. Her golden curls waved about as her body lolled in the thick unhappy waves.
She reached out of the water, extending her hand. He grabbed the hand. It felt like a wet piece of paper, or a paper towel, draped over his dirty knuckles.
The Ferry Man went over to him and flung her hand back down into the water.
“They’re gone,” he said. “There’s no need to worry about them now.”
Isaac stared off in the waves with blank eyes.
At the back of the boat, Elijah sat with his eyes closed. He refused to look down into the crowded waters.
“Aaron,” he said with his eyes clenched tightly closed, “get that magic box out of the sack; I hear it.”
“Yes, sir,” Aaron replied, “One moment.”
He sat the burlap sack down on the rough, purplish colored planks that lined the bottom of the boat. The seats between them resembled a pale hue of pink that had long ago dried up. The fin that curved upwards at the top was adorned with the head of a dragon with an open mouth.
Aaron untied the bag and undressed the magic box, picked it up, handed it to Elijah. “Here, sir,” he said meekly. “What do you see in that old box? It’s just a box. Talking or not, it’s a box.”
Elijah rubbed his scruffy goatee and smiled, scratching his face, looking at his stark features in the dim reflection the magic box gave off.
“I just realized something,” he said to Aaron. “I am, perhaps, to be nominated for Most Awesome Person in the Universe. Nobody else comes close.”
“Why are you so terribly arrogant?” Anne asked, picking at the levers in her palm.
“Stop picking it,” he shouted, and slapped her arm, “It’ll get infected.”
“Right, sir,” she said obediently. “I’m sorry.”
“Ah, fuck it,” Elijah replied, still intently focusing at the planks that lined the boat.
“I’m arrogant,” he said, fishing out a cigarette, “because that’s how I was made. Would you ever ask a cake with yellow icing why it isn’t a cake with red icing? Would you ever ask a bicycle why it isn’t can of chicken broth? So I’m arrogant. Arrogance is getting the only approval you’ll ever need.”
“Well said,” Isaac said, up at the front of the boat, “You should write some sort of story.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Elijah replied, rubbing his chin. “You know, thinking about writing down the things we’ve done and been through.”
“Who’s the audience?” asked Anne. “If the entire world disappears, it’s going to be hard to find an audience. It’s tough to find a bag of chips when civilization disappears.”
The Ferry Man chuckled a bit, pulling from his pipe.
Elijah returned to the magic box in front of him, deciding to ignore Isaac and his conversation with the Ferry Man.
The screen was blank at first and for a moment. Then the screen sputtered and bits of static rippled on the screen. Swimming up in the screen was the face of the man that had talked about Elijah earlier.
“Shut up,” Elijah said, hushing them, “This guy is trying to tell us something. It’s going to be very important.”
“And we must, oh yes, we must cast off the possessions of this earth that hold us back from the Kingdom of Light.”
“Is he talking about Ra’s Patio?” Aaron asked, looking over at Elijah. He glanced down at his wrist nervously, hoping he’d be able to make it through the maze without running out. This worried him greatly.
“He must be,” Elijah replied, “but what does he mean about throwing out our possessions?”
“Maybe he’s talking about your pink slipper,” Isaac said with a chuckle. “You’ll have to throw it out.”
“I’ll have to throw away my dancing shoes,” said Anne sadly. “They’re all I have of then, then when things were so much better.”
“Things were never any better,” said Aaron. “We just romanticize them because it’s easy. Name one thing that was better, Isaac.”
“My daughter was alive, maybe?”
“I bet that was a scream,” Aaron replied, “Changing diapers, wrist deep in shit, and that constant odor that hangs around like it owns the place.”
“That sounds a lot like you,” Elijah said, turning off the box, throwing the haggard old slipper down into the restless waters.
“Why’d you do that?” Isaac asked.
“The box told me to,” Elijah replied.
“It’s just a box,” Aaron said. “A piece of shit box.”
Elijah looked over at it for a moment then turned it over into the water. It fizzled for a moment and died out.
They pulled up to the shore and they were all silent as they hopped off the boat.
“How much longer do we have?” Elijah asked the Ferry Man.
“Enough,” he said, turning around. His leather, brown cloak turned as he knelt back into the boat, looking for an oar.
He gestured across the river with his bony finger. There was a long, rundown looking line of people walking over the hills as they had. Some had bags over their shoulders, some of them were alone, some of them were sick, but all of them had implants in their hands. Some vials were full, but most were empty.
“I’ve been ferrying people across this river for hundreds of years now,” said the man, “and people never stop coming. Lots of people die before they make it through the maze, you know. More of them die before they even make it to my boat.”
“Why do you keep doing it?” Elijah asked, as Anne, Aaron, and Isaac stood before the four statues frozen.
“Because I have to.”
“You could do something else,” Elijah said, glancing at the long caravan of people trudging through the gloom.
“Could is a word that people hide behind,” said the man, packing his pipe again,
“I can pretend all I want that I could do something else, when in reality I can’t. Plus, the money is good.”
“Aye,” Elijah nodded. He walked up behind the others and stood staring into the giant mouth of the maze.
The mouth of the maze was just that – a giant mouth. Around its edges were small, dying shrubs and palm trees. In the opening of the mouth stood, as everyone said, the four giant statues.
As it was told, at the mouth of the maze the travelers could choose one of the four statues; the advice printed at their bases would guide them through the maze.
The man, or woman, wishing to play this cosmic game chose their path through the maze by the printed words upon the statue of their choosing. They were told, by Roma and everybody down at his warehouse, to choose the one that made the most sense to them.
Elijah looked over the four statues for a moment. He stared off into the foggy corridors of grass and stone that twisted not ten paces away from him.
High above the maze he saw the oscillating light – the lighthouse atop the mountain. This guided everyone to the shore safely. Or so they said.
Was it worth it? Elijah thought, looking over the faces of all the people that lay scattered about in the grass, the mountains of toothpaste and shaving cream that rose up mountainous at the Piles? All of the killing, the lying, the Digitalis – what was it for? To get to the mouth of the maze, he remembered. What was better than that? Making it out, and onto the shore of Ra’s Patio alive. This, however, would be tricky. Just in front of the four statues, the magic phone booth appeared again at last.
Anne dug the piece of glass out of her pocket and observed it. It was still blank, but the phone booth lay open in front of them. Fog wrapped around it as Anne walked towards it.
The phone was hanging off the hook when she picked it up, stuck it to her ear.
“Shit!” she yelled, “We gave our quarters to the Ferry Man.”
Aaron dug down in his pocket for the Styrofoam cup, took it out, and turned it upside down, rattling it. Three quarters fell out. He picked them up and rushed over to her.
She sent them clanging down into the change receptacle. She clutched the phone tightly at her ear and dialed: one, two, three, four, three, two, one. A minute later, Elizabeth picked up the phone.

“Hello?” Anne heard.
“You’re in front of the statues right now, right?” Elizabeth said rapidly, “You have to hurry up and find the golden moth. Your book will tell you how to find it. You keep it with you in your trunk.”
“I know the book,” she said. “I know where it’s at. It’s in my trunk.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied, “You have to go in through the side of the maze closest to,” she broke off, “Wait a moment.”
Light music came through the receiver. Anne waited impatiently for a moment. On the horizon the odd, jagged shapes of buildings jutted upwards in the fog. Sounds of conversation lingered in the air around her.
“Ok,” Elizabeth said, “Go in through the maze behind the statue with all the arms. You’ll never survive the others. This is as much as I’ll be able to help you, because once you cross into the maze – Elijah will need the mirror. The rest of you are on your own after this.”
“All the arms?” asked Anne.
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied, “the statue with four arms. You’re supposed to follow it into the maze. Before you go in, however, give that book you carry to Elijah; he’s the one that will run into the golden moths. Herman doesn’t want him to catch it; something’s wrong with him.
“We just got back from Mike’s Trans-dimensional Waffle House,” she said,
“Herman is depressed, and out of his mind. He plans to send you through some sort of castle; at the end of the maze, you’ll find a mechanical man in a chair. There will be a sign hanging around his neck. If the quarters are crying, do not drop them down into the change receptacle. If you do, he’ll slam his staff into your head and kill you. Then you’ll be sent to the River’s … I think. Or we could just burn the story now,” she hastened to add, “and you could go to the Island of Lost Characters. Thousands of them showed up in our world briefly – but since we’re running out of space on this side, only half of South Carolina is left, they’ve disappeared along with everything else. Those Janitors came by earlier and said the wheel would’ve been up sooner, but they took a small vacation holiday somewhere in the Vegan star system and ended up getting drunk.
“Put Elijah on the phone,” Elizabeth said. Her voice still seemed rushed and worried.
“Elijah,” Anne called out, “the phone is for you.”
“Can you take a message?” he called back, but walked towards her anyway.
“Hello?” he said, taking the phone from Anne. He pushed her out of the booth.
“A little privacy, please,” he said.
“Elijah,” Elizabeth said sternly, “Do you see the statue with the turban around his head?”
Elijah cast a glance sideways, looked back down at the floor of the booth.
“Yeah,” he said, “I imagined it would’ve been more artistic looking. It’s rubbish.”
“You’ll want to follow that path into the maze,” Elizabeth continued. “Get the book from Anne, she has it in her trunk. Get the Styrofoam cup from Aaron. Have you seen the Valley of the Golden moth?”
The image of the grassy corridor, teaming with the fluttering golden moths crept back into his head; this time a man stood at the edge of the path, and the moths were trickling out of his mouth.
“Probably,” he said uneasily, “but, I always see a lot of them.”
“That’s right,” she went on, “only one of them can sever the connection.”
“How will I know which one?” he asked timidly.
“Anne’s book will tell you how to catch it.”
“And what do I do once I catch it?”
“You drop it down into the Styrofoam cup and shake it. I’ll catch the one on our side and put it down into the coffee tin – the connection, bridge, whatever, between our worlds will break and the Janitors can get that god damn wheel running again.”
“This has gotten really out of hand, hasn’t it? This was supposed to be just a simple adventure. You know, fighting, fucking, smoking cigarettes and yelling catch phrases. This is complicated.”
“Life usually is, Elijah,” said Elizabeth, “but, I have a surprise for you.”
“What’s that?” he asked curiously.
“You’ll know the next time you use the bathroom.”
He thought for a minute and then the revelation came. He smiled widely.
“Another thing, Elijah,” Elizabeth went on, “the magic box you’ve been carrying around … it’s not a prophet or a guide. It’s just a television locked on some gospel program. Don’t listen to it; it won’t guide you anywhere but the grave.”
He frowned; the idea of a portable electronic prophet had appealed to him.
“Let me speak to Isaac,” she said.
Elijah dropped the phone and slid out of the booth.
“Isaac,” he shouted, “some goofy broad has to ramble to you with a lot of stuff that makes little to no sense at all. Sounds important, though.”
Isaac shrugged Elijah off, as he had so many times before, and made his way up to the booth. He picked up the phone.
“Yes?” he said.
“It’s not your daughter,” she said. “Don’t follow her into the woods. You will die.”
“Cryptic,” he said, “and informative. Thanks.”
“Let me talk to Aaron,” she said. “Hurry, Augusta just got swallowed.”
“What?” Isaac asked in obvious alarm.
“Augusta,” she repeated, “a city in South Carolina. The garage just swallowed it, and it’s still hungry.”
“Wait,” he said, “slow down. What are you trying to tell me?”
“A garage,” she said slowly, “in South Carolina, has been swallowing most of the planet. If we can’t sever the links, the garage will probably gobble up the rest of the world. New York gave him indigestion, apparently, and he spit out a couple of rakes and a very surprised looking dog.”
“I can imagine,” Isaac said.
“If we don’t sever the link,” Elizabeth went on, “he’ll swallow the rest of the world.”
“Wait,” Isaac said, “The garage is a male?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said ‘he’ll’ in reference to a garage,” Isaac said. “How do you know the garage goes to the little boy’s room?”
“For one,” Elizabeth replied, “he calls himself Gordon. For two, only a male could be nasty enough to swallow Alabama whole.”
“Truly disgusting,” Isaac conceded.
“Do you see the statue with the bald head and the long, tangled looking beard?”
“Aye,” said Isaac.
“Follow it, and remember: the girl will not be your daughter.”
“Righty-o, crazy lady,” he replied jovially.
“Put Aaron on the phone.”
Isaac conceded, motioned for Aaron. He shrugged morosely and sauntered up to the phone.
“What?” he asked grumpily.
“You’ll have the hardest time of all,” she said to him. “You’ll face something more terrifying than any of the others.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nobody will be able to help you except yourself,” she said, “and you best listen to him.”

He hung up and watched the phone slowly disappear. A moment later, the booth was gone completely. They stood there together looking into one another’s foggy path down the grassy, ivy covered corridors.

Like four doomed ships that pass in storm
They crossed each other’s way:
But they made no sign, and said no word, They had no word to say;
For they did not meet in the holy night, But in the shameful day.

“Give me your book,” Elijah said to Anne, “and Aaron,” he said, “let me have that Styrofoam cup.”
Anne dug in her trunk for a moment and finally produced the book. He took it from her, stuffed it down in his back pocket, and turned to Aaron. He handed the cup to him.
Elijah looked at them one last time and turned to face the path that lay before them.
“Hope you get to dance again, Anne,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
“I don’t hope for much,” he went on, “but I hope you get to finish your story, Isaac.”
Isaac nodded silently, staring into the fog.
“And Aaron,” he said, “I never thought you smelled that bad. Certainly not as bad as me.”
He flicked the cigarette to the ground and stood staring at it as it burnt away leaf by leaf. There’d be no smoking in paradise, no more need for it. There’d be no need for Digitalis, either. “Fill up while you can,” he said, and disappeared into the fog.
The others nodded at one another. Anne left her empty trunk beside the four armed statue she was to follow. Aaron threw down all the pots and pans and cans of chicken broth, and looked at Isaac’s worried face.
“See you on the other side,” Isaac said, and vanished into the maze.
“Anne,” Aaron said, “I… I don’t know.”
“Trust yourself, Aaron,” she said and kissed her hand. She walked over to him and put it on his cold, clammy forehead.
“Goodbye!” she ducked behind the statue and disappeared.
After she passed out of sight, Aaron muttered, “Goodbye,” and, despite himself, walked into the fog.
Paradise wasn’t too far away, and atop the hill he saw the lighthouse gleaming for him.
Across the River, full of forgotten faces in the water, he stared wistfully at the long lines of beaten down people walking on and on up to the docks. Even Roma would sooner or later have to make his way to the maze, or end up another one of the bodies lining the road like an absurd decoration.

Chapter 4
Playing Athalie

“I told them all I could,” Elizabeth said to Thomas, “the rest is up to them. I can almost play the March now, and at ten fifteen – I guess we’ll either live or not.”
“That’s usually the case,” Thomas said, fiddling with a guitar. “The better of two evils being life.”
She sighed. More than likely she was essentially fed up with my irreverence.
I got up to turn on the lights to try and get a bit of sun in before Terra headed off to sleep. She’d been out late tonight, I thought, and would have to be up at the same time the next morning, ready for work.
I flipped the light switch. Nothing happened.
“Let there be light!” I shouted, trying to flip the switch again. Nothing.
“Herman!” I called, “Why don’t the lights work?”
“I was supposed to send in the money this morning, but I didn’t have enough.”
“Don’t worry with it man,” I said, digging into my pockets, “I’ve got some money.
I was just going to waste it having a good time anyway, you can borrow it.”
I reached into my back pocket. My wallet was gone. My smug sense of benevolence faded. “Shit!” I shouted, “I’ll borrow the money to give it to you, Herman. I can’t find my wallet.”
“Nah,” he said, “I’ll get it paid. Don’t you worry about it.”
I turned to walk into the other room. He called after me.
“Hey,” he shouted, “I talked to your dad.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “he said we should go visit him some day this week. You know, you can take that guitar of yours and I’ll take my dobro. I told him how good you were getting. Ha! He said ‘I hope you don’t make him better than me Herman, ‘cause I know how good a picker you used to be.’”
I laughed an awkward, forced laugh, shrugged and went back into the other room. “I had over one hundred dollars in that wallet,” I told her. “No matter, though, most of the respectable shops have closed and I’m banned from most of the less reputable establishments.”
She ignored me. I felt my chest twinge again, and tried to stir her into conversation again. I knew what would do the trick: I’d do as I usually did. I’d say something entirely misleading, open the door into an area of pointless, superfluous conversation, and then leave them there. My heart was racing with excitement at the thought of prodding about in her head.
“You know,” I said as she fiddled about with her violin, “this universe couldn’t have been made for men.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, putting her bow aside.
“That’s like getting giving an ant a home the size of Jupiter. Making a universe this big for human beings alone would be akin to making a million mile race track for a car without wheels.”
“Maybe it’s here to inspire our imaginations? To present us with the possibilities of something more important than mucking about in shady apartments, smoking cigarettes?”
“If there’s anything more important than mucking about in shady apartments, smoking cigarettes, and just generally being a slob – I certainly don’t want the human race to discover it until long after I’m gone. And sadly, when it comes to authority over the earth, I’m afraid human beings act like the incompetent mall cop that has nothing to do with organization yet thinks it’d fall apart without him.”
“When you become Satan’s right hand man in the New and Improved Afterlife?”
“I’d like to test the job market first,” I said. “Of course, I could always work my way to the top. You know, start off at first as a mere evil henchman and gradually work my way up to awe-inspiring overlord of terror.”
“You’re well cut out for the job,” Elizabeth said, “an essentially hopeless, miserable, overcompensating, overbearing, out-of-work guitarist.”
“I’m not overbearing,” I said, lighting a cigarette. “I’m just not well disposed to being told what to do.”
“Nobody is telling you what to do.”
She stared at me for a minute. I laughed. She rolled her eyes and went on with her playing.
I sat for a moment reading through Herman’s manuscripts, all thrown about his room messily. Some had stout smelling orange stains on them.
As for Herman, we found him in the backyard sobbing.
A friend of his, he told us, had came by the house the night before to bring him some old pictures he’d found. When he got there, Herman was feeding his kittens. The knock on the door, he said, scared him, and he ran to it, jerked it open immediately. He stood in front of Murphy, who stood in front of him smiling his wide, white while, and Murphy said, “I need your help with something, brother. Mind coming over?”
Then, Herman said, he went over to Murphy’s house to help him fix an old guitar, and came home to find the kittens had died.
After we left Mike’s, we fell out of the door, in actuality we were more precisely spit out, we landed in the same playground where we’d found the door in the sandbox.
After everything that happened, I still believed, and forced myself to believe, that it was all in my imagination. I took medicine for this type of stuff, and I didn’t want to end up back in the rubber hole.
“He’s taken it pretty hard, hasn’t he?” Elizabeth asked, concerned like.
“Could be worse,” I said, “he could’ve actually watched ‘em die. That’d probably make things a lot worse. He should’ve known though when we found them in the woods that they would probably die. It was like a little bundle of tragedy. Of course they were cute, but we knew it’d end badly.”
“Why is everything casual irreverence with you? Do you practice being detached or do you usually sit around and make ridiculous comments to entertain yourself?”
“That’s exactly what I do,” I said, “and,” I added, “the best thing you can do with time is waste it.”
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“Because it does the same to us,” I said, forcing a smile.
In the other room, Herman banged away furiously at the typewriter keys. We knew that in the next couple of days, two things would happen: he’d either finish the story, or the story would finish him.
The phone rang. There was a noise in the other room – Herman’s chair turning over – and he rushed into the phone.
“I got it,” he yelled to us. “It might be Hank.”
“Yello?” we heard him say, “Oh, yes, one second.”
“Thomas,” he called into the other room, “it’s your brother. Come pick up the phone.”
I peeled myself off the couch and strode over to the phone.
“Hello?” I said, picking it up, “This better be important. I’m terribly busy.”
“What are you so busy doing?” my brother asked, “I just have to ask you a question. Stop being a douche.”
“For a moment,” I replied, “I’ll stop. What is it?”
“I think your telescope is broken,” he said gravely. I felt my heart sink.
“What?” I shouted, “What did you do to it?”
“Nothing,” he insisted. “It was still set up on the deck, just like we set it up. Still there, just hanging out around the deck…”
“Getting a tan?”
“I suppose, if telescopes are worried about their complexion,” he added, “but, you see, the problem is a curious one.”
“And it is? Other than you calling me while I’m trying to work, of course.”
“The telescope works just fine for local areas,” he said. “I can see the mill, a cute girl across the way changing panties, and anything within reasonable, binocular like distance…”
“Just cut to it,” I demanded.
“Either the telescope is broken,” he intoned, “or the stars are out to lunch.”
“What do you mean?”
“The stars are gone. All of them.”
“Where the hell could they go? There’s a half-off sale down at Wal-Mart, but I doubt the stars abandoned their elliptical orbits just to take advantage of the low- low prices and hot wing value packs.”
“The stars are missing,” he said slowly, “and you’re talking about hot wings. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Lots,” I said, “but, I think I’ve got an idea as to where they’ve gone.”
“There’s a garage, not far from here, that is causing all the disappearances. You have been watching the news, right? All of the world has vanished except for about a hundred mile radius in South Carolina.”
“Nah,” he said, “I’ve been playing solitaire. The cable has been out for a while, so I can’t get online … my mod is going to suffer, sadly.”
“The world is disappearing,” I said, “and you’re playing solitaire?”
“Where is it going?” he asked finally, after a short silence. He had until the end, as I had, refused to believe what was really happening. There was no way there could be a ballroom under a sandbox. It’s impossible. There’s no way that people pass through different realities by way of some ridiculous waffle house. There’s no way a garage could be drinking the universe. But, reality, like it or not, is persistent and never changes. Reality never changes, but occasionally our perspective of it does.
“This man has been writing a story,” I said, sounding ridiculous, “and somehow he’s connected us to a parallel universe. He gained control over it and we’ve been communicating back and forth with the fictional characters in his story. All of the other imaginary characters exploited this loophole, and escaped into our world. That’s why the Boogeyman kept badgering our mother. Some sort of bridge between our world and theirs was created. If the Janitors can’t get the wheel running, we might not regain what we lost of the world, even if the link to their reality is severed.”
My brother roared with laughter.
“This is absurd as all hell,” he laughed. “I figured we’d all just gone completely bug shit crazy. Did I tell you who tried to break into the house last night?”
“A shelf.”
“A shelf?”
“Yes,” my brother said, “he came in through the window. He spent the first half hour asking me to put cups and books on him. After a while I got him to smoke a joint and calm down. We’ve been playing chess.”
“Is he letting you win?” I laughed.
“He’s actually kind of depressed,” he replied, “been moping about and what not. Nobody has used him for quite some time, he says.”
“Has he tried getting married?”
Elizabeth rushed into the kitchen, where I stood by the phone, and slapped me across the back of the head.
“You and your sexist shit,” she shouted. “Ugh!” she stomped off back to the living room, continuing to work on Athalie, War March of the Priests.
The sun was still out, and it was well past nine. Many of the news stations around the country had disappeared and all we had on the television was local Jesus Loves You and Needs Your Money televangelist extravaganzas, fishing shows, and a few fine eating programs. The local news program had given up trying to make any sense of the fact that South Carolina was the only place that existed on earth, giant Janitors floated around the sky, and shelves randomly broke into peoples homes demanding to be made useful again. I’d have hung the sense of it long ego, but then again – it was interesting. I didn’t want things to be normal, I wanted them to be interesting. Any person that claims to be normal could describe themselves in less than a paragraph and anyone that can identify themselves in under a thousand words probably shouldn’t be describing themselves to begin with.
“What are you doing now?” I asked, finally, after taking my eyes off Elizabeth. She had nearly perfected the march and it was beautiful to hear.
“We’re watching the Twilight Zone,” my brother said. “We found all the old tapes in your room when I was looking for stuff to stack on him. So, figured we might as well watch something of quality before the rest of the state disappears.”
“Submitted for your approval,” I said. “A seemingly innocent backwoods town of country folk. Population one thousand. But something is horribly wrong. Imaginary creatures from the past have escaped into their quiet town, and the only way to stop a garage from swallowing the rest of the remaining world is to capture a moth and put him in a coffee tin. Immortal Janitors loom in the distance, tidying up, trying to get the wheel of reincarnation running again so dead people, in an underground ballroom, can be reincarnated as hummingbirds or other strange animals. There is a portal, in the sand, and it leads to…” My brother interrupted, “to the Twilight Zone.”
I heard a hollow laugh in the back as my brother chimed:
“Doo-doo doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo.”
I laughed. It seemed entirely possible that our small, quaint town had inadvertently made its way to some impossibly complicated Twilight Zone that forgot itself entirely. But, this wasn’t the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was dead and probably roaming the earth as some sort of aquatic bird, and a half-mad garage was swallowing the world. We had moths to catch and violin concertos to learn, so I said:
“Welp, if I never see you again,” I went on, trying to remain as emotionally detached as possible. “I just wanted to tell you… I’ve never let you win a game of chess. All those times, you really beat me.”
“Did you pay my cell phone bill?” he asked, choking up a bit.
“Yeah, man,” I said. “It’s always been on time.”
“Later, man,” he said, ringing off. The dial tone swam into my ear.
“Later,” I said to the static, and hung the phone back up.

“I’ve got it,” she said, folding her violin over her lap. “Now all I have to do is wait for ten fifteen.”
“What do you want to do until then?”
She took the shard of glass from her pocket and looked down into it. In it she saw a light looking back and forth across a darkened plane. She tapped it three times; nothing happened. She folded it away.
“Well, I told them how to get through the maze based on the pages we’ve found of the story. We don’t yet know which ones will be able to make it to the other side.”
“I wish somebody was writing our lives as a story, and could help us get to Heaven with a small cup and a few quarters. There’s certainly no one that’s going to help us.”
“What are you rambling about now?” Elizabeth asked disapprovingly.
“Think of it like this,” he said. “I read in a book somewhere, about a man who models a theory of immortality around the regenerative processes found in the DNA of lizard’s. I can’t remember what the book is called, but I remembered a quote from it that describes exactly how I feel right now.”
“And that would be?” she asked, putting her beautifully carved violin aside.
“The world is a prison and the inmates run the show. The night watchman is asleep, unconcerned with those below.”
“It’s a pretty notion,” she said, “but you have a miserable little life. Especially if you believe that kind of rubbish.”
I didn’t feel like defending my beliefs at the moment. I was tired, for one, and my brain was taxed to the extreme. It’s not often that one is thrown into such precarious situations.
“Somewhere,” I said, “along the line, we passed into an alternate reality. I don’t know how, really, and it sounds absurd, but there was something that triggered all of this.”
“Well?” she said after thinking for a moment.
“When the snow globe broke,” I continued, “you know, when he repeated the same thing over and over?”
“Well, when that broke, we shifted into a completely different reality.
Somewhere, the reality as it was before we left it, you know, the normal one, still exists. You and I should go back to the Waffle House, find the right door, and go back to the reality that exists before we ever met Herman.”
“What about the versions of us in that reality? Won’t they be a bit cross that we’re dragging them into fantastical Waffle Houses and then throwing them into a universe they don’t understand?”
“We’re all thrown into a universe we don’t understand,” I said, “Why should they be spared?”
“Well,” she said quietly, “You want to let the rest of the world disappear?”
“Because it’s interesting,” I said. “New things happen every day. It ruins any sort of feeling of routine. I miss that feeling, you know, that sense of robot like routine. Pardon me.”
I hopped up and ran to the bathroom. Herman was in his room, pounding away at the keys, and I knocked on the door.
“Some man went in there,” Herman said, “Said he had to use the john. So I tell him where it’s at. He been in there for a while, long while.”
I knocked on the door.
“Some privacy, please,” said the deep, hollow voice of the Mysterious Toilet User. I don’t know why I typed that in all pronoun form, other than to add some sort of levity to the situation of a strange man occupying the toilet.
“Who is it?” I asked Herman.
“A janitor,” he said. “He was out in the playground before y’all showed up. Then he asked me if he could borrow a flashlight, somethin’ about a garage down in the woods.”
Hopefully they’d cleaned all the gunk out of the reanimation / reincarnation wheel. All of the spontaneity had begun to annoy me greatly. Sure it was exciting, novel actually, but it was too horribly fun for me to enjoy. I’d much rather get back to my house, back into my little corner, pick up my guitar and play horrible music and just slouch about for a bit.
“Hey,” I said to the Immortal Janitor. “Make sure you let the seat down. I don’t know if they teach proper bathroom etiquette in whichever reality or universe you’re from. But here on earth, we don’t enjoy sitting in puddles of other folks piss. We’ve tried it. It’s just not something we’re well disposed to.”
The Janitor stepped out of the door gracefully.
“There were some Goonies,” he said, “trying to climb up out of your toilet. But we patched it. Nothing from any other reality or dimension can come up through it. Now, which way is the bridge?”
“Which bridge?” I asked curiously, fighting off the urge to imagine a Goonie crawling up out of the toilet while I was sitting on it.
“The one made out of a car door,” he said.
“Towards the end of the gravel road, shortly through the woods,” I said. “You’ll see it. It’s in a clearing.”
“Very well,” said the janitor, slapping on some yellow latex gloves. “Once we get it patched, no more intrusions can make their way into this universe. Then, you can sever the connection and everything can go back to being as boring and as normal as it used to be.”
“You are truly a great man,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Wyatt Evelyn,” he said, “nice to meet you again, Thomas.”
“Again?” I asked curiously.
“Sure,” he went on, “I’ve met countless different versions of you in countless different realities. One of them is a multimillionaire playboy that has a mansion full of girls with whom he experiments new ways for them to be extremely nice to him.”
“Sounds awful,” I said, “is there nothing you can do?”
“Afraid not,” he shook his head gravely, “the rest is up to God.”
“Speaking of God,” I asked. “Where is he right now while the world is going to shit?”
“The world has been steadily going to shit since it started. The world starts off, every world in the history of the universe, starts off at its best. Then, it gradually turns to shit. But hey, you’ve got to have a laugh.”
“The world going to shit isn’t necessarily the problem,” I said. “Where’s the night watchman? The man that minds the bell?”
“God?” he asked, chuckling, “Which one?”
“The ultimate God,” I said.
“There is a different independent ruling God for each independent reality. But there is one God that governs them.”
“Where is he?”
“Right now?” asked the Immortal Janitor.
“Yes,” I said, getting annoyed. “Where is he when the world needs saving?”
“Right now,” said the Janitor, “he’s having waffles. I’m meeting him for lunch in an hour. We’re going to watch the moth catching bit on television at Mike’s. It’s going to be quite sensational.”
“I’m afraid so,” I said disdainfully. “Where are you off to now?”
“We’re all going to gather around the wheel,” he said, “all the independent Janitors and other less important personnel, and as soon as you’ve got the moth under the coffee tin, and they’ve got it in the cup, we’ll start the wheel turning again.”
“How will we know if it’s working?”
“You’ve got a telescope, right?” he asked.
“Yeah, on my deck.”
“Play Athalie at ten fifteen. Catch the moth, put it under the coffee tin. Once it disappears, run back to your house, if it’s still there, and look into the sky. If it worked, then all the stars will start reappearing. Look for Sirius or Ursa Major.”
“What if they don’t show up?”
“They finally found a job that gives them more satisfaction than being a big dirt rock’s microwave.”
“Where could a sun get a job?” I asked, “They wouldn’t even hire me at Taco Bell because I tried to set something on fire. I doubt they’d let the sun work there, considering it’d set the entire earth on fire and they’d never be able to find a Taco Bell hat to fit Terra.”
“It could get into networking,” suggested the Janitor, “or just peruse the market for a while. It’s a big universe.”
“How big?” I asked.
“Bigger than Godzilla’s dick,” said the Janitor, picked up his mop and bucket, yellow gloves, and scooted past me in the hallway.
“Area secure,” he said into a walkie-talkie, and disappeared into a Lysol smelling cloud. It was a nice relief from Herman’s apartment. It had the terrible smell of age.
“Ten o clock!” Elizabeth shouted from the other room. “Come on, let’s set up.”

I went into Herman’s room. I was going to tell him we were going to catch a breath, have a cigarette. But he was gone.
On his desk sat the completed story Digitalis. On top of the paper lay what remained of the medicine he took.
“Herman?” I called, heading towards the back door. No sign of him on the patio where the hummingbird sang, no sign of him in the backyard where the kittens lay buried, and no sign of him anywhere.
The sound of the screen door shutting caught my attention. Elizabeth was going outside, but I went to call her to come back in. Then I noticed something that told me where Herman probably was. Somehow, someway, I knew where he was.
There was a bustle inside it. I kicked over a couple of boxes, rushing to pick up the coffee tin. I picked it up. Herman’s hand was sticking out of a small hole just under it. It waved at me, and the hole swallowed it. Herman had left the universe without offering us dinner.
Then I remembered something more pressing. The bathroom was now unoccupied; and my kidneys were still occupied. The occupants needed to be evicted, so I ran back to the bathroom. Ten after, I noticed, looking down at my watch as I sat down. Herman was terrified of clocks. As such, he never kept any in the house.
Sitting down, yes, sitting down, I forced the occupants to relocate.
“Thomas,” Elizabeth shouted, “hurry up, I’ve got to pee.”
The world was disappearing and she was worried only about herself. Typical woman.
“How about you pee on my lap?” I offered kindly.
“Ew!” she shouted.
“Fuckin’ ingrate,” I muttered, standing up. She hurried in as I passed.
“Why didn’t you turn the lights on?” she asked.
“It’s rude to watch someone go,” I said, “and secondly, Herman can’t afford to pay the bills.”
“Just go outside and wait on me. We’ve only got ten minutes.”
At that moment I began to feel greatly uneasy with myself. The world was about to end, something I’d hoped for thousands of times, and for some reason I had only a phoned in enthusiasm for it. Sure, I wouldn’t have to pay cell phone bills anymore, get arrested for vandalizing company property, or having to deal with belligerent fictional detectives, but I wouldn’t get to do much else either. If life is a job, then death is the supervisor. If you fuck up on the job, you’ll have a brush with the supervisor. If you fuck up big, sometimes you’re fired.
I went outside and looked up. The sun was out moments earlier, but was now gone entirely; the lazy, unreliable, and marginally presentable moon was tardy, too.
“Elizabeth,” I yelled, “come on! If we’re going to do this, let’s do it now. I’ve got hot wings waiting at the house.”
She strode out of the door in a very sleek brown leather jacket, stone-washed jeans, and a magnificent rack. It made a man weep.
“Where’d the sun go?” she asked, holding her hand to her forehead to gaze upward at the empty, black, and inky sky. The Immaculate Vacuum was sweeping us all under the rug, just as the Janitors did with those ten years.
She put the violin to her shoulder, and rosined up her bow. Only the light of the streetlight at the end of the corner remained. Inside the sound of an upbeat jazz record was playing. It reminded me of the jazz band in the ballroom.
“Once you play this,” I asked nervously. “What do you want me to do?”
“Wait on the moth,” she said, getting into her playing position, “then catch it.”
“With what? A catcher’s mitt? A jar?”
“Yes, a mason jar would do fine. But then, we have to put it in the coffee tin at just the right time.”
“Why do you think all the people disappeared?” I asked her. She was silent.
“I don’t think it has as much to do with the garage as people say it does,” I added. “Even though we’re aware that it’s drinking in land mass. I think people are disappearing because the reincarnation wheel has stopped spinning, and all the bodies on earth are recycled.”
“Or maybe we’ve all gone bug-ass nuts.”
“Just as credible an observation,” I confirmed, “but, we have to consider the horrible probability that we’re normal and this is all real and interesting.”
“Can’t you just shut up for once?”
“No, because if I shut up I have to think. Then things start going down hill. When I stop talking, I start suffering. Ignorance is bliss, they say, so what would you consider enlightenment?”
“Now you think you’re enlightened? What a load.”
“Enlightenment is the last thing I want,” I said as wryly as possible,
“Enlightenment is acknowledging first of all that you’ve been wrong in some fashion, and that’s not something I’m ready to do.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Enlightenment begins with knowing that you’re going to suffer and die.
Enlightenment ends with knowing why. Besides, I know the meaning of life.”
“Whatever,” she said tartly, watching a low hanging hurricane spiral up in the distance, “What is it then?”
“Life,” I said, “is a sexually transmitted disease. Life is a terminal hereditary illness. Life is a shopping spree where you’re given time enough to grab thousands of things, but at the end – time always expires. And human beings,” I added pompously, “are the most beautiful and terrifying of all natural disasters.”
“That’s not the meaning of life,” she barked. “That’s just your opinion of what it is.”
Ten after ten, we heard something say, reminding us we had to hurry.
“Fine then,” I shouted back, “I’ll tell you.”
“Go on,” she said sarcastically, “tell me, then.”
“Life,” I said again in my perfectly pompous tone, which merely resonance suggested my head was screaming from ten inches up my own ass, “Life is the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating within the organism. And there,” I added smugly, “is the meaning of life.”
“That’s such bullshit!” she howled. “Feh, whatever.”
“You can take that up with the American Heritage Dictionary.”
Twelve after ten.
“Definition is a lot different than meaning,” she said, raising her bow to her shoulder. “Go get a jar,” she said, “we’ve got three minutes.”
I hurried back in through the noisy screen door, dodging the usual assortment of boxes and stacks of posters.
As I stepped by the coffee tin, the familiar, yet unidentifiable twang of a dobro poured out. In a hurry, I ignored it.
In the kitchen, I dug around in his cabinets. They were covered in mildew, replete with the stench of dripping, dingy water. Roaches roamed inside his cabinets. About to step on one, I stopped; I didn’t want to inadvertently murder Sir Isaac Newton., or Tchaikovsky. The wheels of recycling played cruel jokes on the living. Finding a suitable jar, I rushed back out to the front porch.
A rickety light swung back and forth on the front porch, sending a silver shimmer in Elizabeth’s silk like hair. The cold gravel at the turn around of the
Leisure View apartments glittered in the streetlight that hung dolefully at the end of the road.
It was fourteen after ten when Elizabeth raised her bow.
“You have the jar?” she asked as I stepped back onto the porch. Her head was nodded; her eyes were closed.
At the end of the street the streetlight disappeared, being sucked up by the monstrous garage. The huge line of houses that led up the dead end road had begun winking out one by one as the first notes of Athalie rang out in the silence.
I looked down at my watch nervously. It was ten fifteen as she dragged her bow across the strings. The beautiful Athalie rose a golden glimmer in the forest at the end of the road. A golden trailed trickled behind the moth as it rose atop the trees. Flying towards us the trees dissolved behind him.
He floated lazily on the air with trails of resplendent gold and silver trailing behind him. I uncapped the jar as he neared the porch. Elizabeth had closed her eyes, playing beautifully as she always had. For a moment I stood in a trance, unable to take my eyes from the glittering gold moth that inched toward us.
The strip of road in front of Herman’s apartment began to ebb as the moth dangled before us. The golden glow lit the porch, throwing shadows on the buckets, trash bags, and fishing poles.
Elizabeth opened her eyes. The moth bobbed up and down in front of her, swaying as she played.
She threw her bow to the ground, “Get it!” she screamed as the walkway started to go transparent, “Hurry!”
I swung the jar. In one quick motion, I caught the moth and capped the lid. She threw down her violin as the walkway ebbed away.
We ran into the house and knelt beside the coffee tin. There was a golden glow inside it, lighting up the dark apartment. I twisted off the cap, and stood it under the tin, and closed the tin down around it.
She took the glass from her pocket and screamed, “Now!”

Elizabeth stood and stared down at the tin. A moment later the coffee tin disappeared. I watched it go with a bit of melancholy. It was a really good makeshift ashtray. I doubted I’d ever be able to use a normal ashtray again.
The piece of glass showed only Elizabeth’s reflection.
“Hello?” she asked it. “Hello?” she asked again. She dropped it and it shattered. In each shard of glass she saw herself. In one she looked the same; in another her eyes were bright green; in another her hair was blonde; and they were all talking rapidly, saying different things.
“Oh shit,” I said.
There were thousands of different versions of Elizabeth scattered on the floor.
Some gossiped with guys, some were screaming in pain, some were screaming in pleasure, and some appeared to be just as bored with living as the next guy. There was a knock at the door. Elizabeth jumped, startled, and, to be honest, it scared the holy hell out of me too. It was Wyatt. Wyatt Evelyn, the dimension traveling Janitor.
“Good work,” he said, stuffing yellow gloves in the pocket of his work uniform,
“Elijah is truly a great man.”
“Elijah?” Elizabeth gasped, “He’s perverted, demented, over-bearing, absurd, and ridiculously handsome.”
“When the stars come out again,” said Evelyn, “thank him. Terra’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he looked over at me.
“Yeah,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to vacation there, however.”
“We read the rest of the story,” I added, “but Herman wrote it as though they all died.”
“Did they die?” Elizabeth asked, concerned.
“I’m not sure,” said Wyatt, “but, I know the link between your realities are severed.”
“That’s good,” I said, “because we don’t have any more quarters to give them. And I’m bored with being involved in interesting situations entirely.”
“I spoke to Isaac,” said Evelyn. “He’s quite a writer, too.”
“Oh yeah?” asked Elizabeth, “He finished his story?”
“Err, no,” he replied, “but he’s working on it. You’re my favorite character, Thomas. You say some of the most ridiculous things. It’s a lot better than a book I read a while back, though. It was about a madman tyrant rising to power and instigating World War II. He damn near wiped an entire race off the planet. It was depressing, really. Too much death and marching and speeches and what not.”
“Adolph Hitler?” I asked.
“You’ve read it?” Evelyn asked, “Wordy isn’t it?” Elizabeth and I looked at each other.
“Who wrote this book? Created the character, so to speak?” Elizabeth asked in typical curiosity.
“Somebody by the name of Roopert Johannsen.”
“Ah, so, what was Isaac’s story about?” Elizabeth asked.
“About two young musician students who get thrown into a series of alternate realities, something about an old man with Alzheimer’s, great characterization on him, too, and something about a garage that enjoys the taste of cities.”
“We’re characters in his story?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” replied Wyatt abruptly. “This happens more often than you’d think, though. Once a man invented a crazy sport called basketball – and now every reality had some form of it. That’s the only constant thing between realities. Basketball is universal,” he shook his head, “I don’t know what sentient creatures find so agreeable about the process of a bunch of people running up and about trying to throw a ball in a hole.”
“I thought you liked basketball? You told Anne you did,” Elizabeth replied.
“I love it,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not absurd.”
“There’s something we have to do,” I told him, “so, if you could help me with one more thing and be on your way?”
“I’ve spent the last forty hours patching up holes in your reality,” he said. “I’m bushed, man. What do you need?”
“How do we get back to Mike’s?”
“The Trans-dimensional Waffle House?” Wyatt confirmed, lighting a cigarette.
“Yes,” Elizabeth said.
“Write him a letter,” Wyatt replied.
“How do we send it to him?” I asked.
“Write the letter and on it write, ‘I’d like a number three combo.’ Go outside, draw a door on the door in chalk, put the letter in the middle of the circle, and set it on fire. He’ll send a door for you. You’ll be asleep, of course, but you don’t really need a body to go.”
“If Elizabeth goes without her body, she’ll probably have to pay for her own food.”
She gave me a nice wallop on the head.
“I swear to God!” she said. “You and your sexist bullshit, drives me crazy.”
“Well,” said Wyatt, taking a long drag off his cigarette, “I get off in an hour. So, I’ll never see you again.”
“Shame, that,” I said.
“But,” he said, “You might run into me at Mike’s.”
“We look forward to it,” said Elizabeth. Wyatt smiled and walked out the door.
Chapter 5
The Shores of Paradise

Isaac popped out of a door, landing on his face, and tried to compose himself. The front of the maze had been some sort of trick; he had entered into something entirely unlike a maze through a door, instead of a hedge maze, he saw nothing but a forest full of twisted trees. An old friend, the moon, hung on the horizon, casting slanting lights through the trees. Dust danced in the slender rays of light. The forest before him was full of what sounded, to him, like odd, mechanical clicking sounds.
In front of him there was a burning bush. “Hello,” said the bush.
Reflexively, he made his way towards it. It burnt not too far into the forest before him. He heard the sound of something fluttering just above him, and something swooped down around him.
He twisted around to look. Nothing was there.
As he came upon the bush, it chuckled and disappeared. It was replaced by the same magic box that Elijah had carried with him. He had long thought of a correlation between the box and the other side.
In the surrounding areas of bleak and twisted trees, he heard whispers. A familiar voice was speaking, but he couldn’t make it out. His hand was draining more quickly than usually.
Inside the magic box, he heard talking, crying, wheezing, even a few lively parties. He figured he would at least inspect it before he left it and walked on.
The screen, swimmy with static and fizzle, blinked and a man appeared on it.
“What are you doing with your life?” the man asked.
“Living It?” Isaac replied, thumping the vial in his hand, “There’s time left.”
“But look at you now,” said the man. “Where does the time go?”
“Probably just goes to Roma’s like the rest of us. It rarely has time for tea.”
The man on the screen laughed, and the box clicked off. Static drew up like a ball in the center.
“Bye,” he said, walking away.
For a while he wandered about the twisted looking trees. Looking for something. It seemed like it had been days, and his vial was almost empty, when he came upon a small, rickety shack.
The door was stripped and bare, splintering really. He twisted the golden doorknob and went inside. In the corner there we two beds, so he figured he’d try to get some rest for a while before continuing to wander through the woods.
He’d been asleep for less than an hour when the small shack shook around him. Startled, he jumped to his feet and ran over to the window. Peering through the sky, he saw the sky had turned into a burning orange color. There were only tiny wisps of grey looking clouds circling around the lifeless bowl.
Isaac made his way to the front door and slid outside. Stepping out, he heard nothing. All along the horizon there was nothing. The sky loomed heavy and ominous. Above he heard heavy sounds of wind. He looked up.
There was a giant, rock ball spiraling towards the earth. But there was an eerie silence. Isaac stopped and stood in fear, looking up, as it approached the horizon. Tremors ripped through the ground as it struck the earth, sending birds flying up towards the orange sky.
There was a quiet rattling noise as the trees shook. Flames came rushing through them, setting them ablaze; the torn and twisted frames of automobiles and shrapnel bounded through the air around him. Isaac dropped to the ground and covered his head. For a time the sounds of gulfing flames wrapped around him. He heard screaming.
He rose to his feet, shocked, and started walking down the cleared path through the trees. Everything had turned bright. The shack in the woods had been burnt to the ground. All the trees had been turned into burning heaps. The grass, too, was gone and burnt.
He looked around for a moment before wandering onward. There were piles of smoking debris along the road. As he walked he felt as though he was being watched.
In the woods around him there were footsteps and the sound of people shifting through the remaining underbrush. From the side of the road, a small group of people emerged from the woods in tattered clothes and shouted, “If you don’t get inside, they’ll get you.”
“Who?” Isaac asked.
“He who takes,” said the small band of dirtied people.
One on each of his arms, the group led him through a maze of burnt down trees and into a giant heap of bottles, metal beams, and other bits of metal. They helped him navigate the junk piles, by the hand, into the center.
Through a hole in the ground, he entered into a small cavern. He walked along the stone, dripping corridors, and entered a room with a strange man sitting on a cushion in the floor. Bottles surrounded the cushion, gourds, and decorative beads hung from the door.
The man raised his hand but kept his eyes closed. Two young children by the entranced nodded and walked out. A minute later they reentered with a small wooden bowl and handed it to Isaac.
“Drink,” said the man on the cushion, “drink! It’s good for you.”
“What is it?” Isaac asked.
“Water!” shouted the man, “It’s been a while since you’ve had good water, hasn’t it?”
Isaac nodded.
For a while they sat together in silence. People came in and out of the small room, bringing more and more water for Isaac, whispering into the man’s ears.
Isaac drained another bowl of water and stood.
“I’m leaving,” he said, turning away. “Thanks.”
“That’s foolish,” said the man. “You’ll die out there, buddy. I’m here to help you. Why do you think I came here? I’ve got a hummingbird to feed.” Isaac paid no mind to this and exited.
In front of the small commune of people there were huge piles of junk, metal, broken automobiles, and chunks of homes meshed together. Isaac crawled over them wearily, trying to find the glimmer of the lighthouse on the hill again. Children were climbing barefoot up and down the hills, digging around in the remains. Looking for more people, Isaac thought. Standing near a small well, looking down, he saw the shape of a young girl. From behind, the similarity was striking. He remembered what Elizabeth said, but Elizabeth didn’t know what his young girl looked like. He called out to her and then froze. She disappeared off the edge of the well, and the birds that were beside her flew upward.
In the distance he saw celestial balls of grey swarming over the piles of junk and debris. They were shroud like, conscious looking, and the most peculiar shade of grey. They rose quickly, as though noticing him, and started toward him. He started and turned to run. The orbs bobbed over the piles of junk to pursue him. He didn’t make it far. One of the celestial grey colored orbs trapped and engulfed him; he was unable to move.
“This is where you go,” said the orb. “This is what you have to do.” Isaac started forward on its command.
“Bend down,” said the voice. “Pick up the knife.”
Isaac bent down like a puppet, picked it up, and walked up to one of the nearest children playing on the hill.
“Kill him,” said the orb, “kill all of them.”
“I usually don’t let orbs boss me about, you know,” said Isaac, “but you’re such a pretty color.”
Isaac thrust his knife down into the neck of the first boy he saw on the hill. The others screamed and ran from him like he was selling them life insurance. And at the time, they probably could’ve used it.
After the orb had demanded the death of lots of random children that were playing with lots of random sparrows which were just as dead. The young woman on the well appeared again with her hands folded across her lap.
The presence of the orb released him and he staggered forward, regaining consciousness. Trash whipped over the piles of mangled metal. Her pale white legs dangled from the edge of the well as he approached.
He stood behind her with the knife still in his hand. Her hair was tangled and unkempt, but he reasoned that this wasn’t reason enough to kill her, so he dropped the knife to the ground.
“What’s it like to be dead?” whispered the young girl without turning around. He stood behind her frozen. The orange of the sky pulsed and swelled.
“I’m not dead,” he said. “If I was dead, I’d see no real reason to wear these shoes. They’re terribly dirty.”
“You’re looking for Ra’s Patio,” she said lowly, “but have you taken the time to think that maybe it doesn’t exist? That maybe it’s just a lie to get you to swallow all the bullshit you’re forced to deal with?”
“If you’re my daughter, you better have a damn good explanation for using such language. If you’re not my daughter, you better have a damn good explanation for making me think you’re my daughter.”
“If I’m your daughter,” she said, turning around, glaring at him with black, marble like eyes, “then you must be dead. Your daughter died behind Roma’s warehouse.”
He was silent. As ridiculous as everything had been, the smart assed young woman by the well was logically sound.
“So, what’s it like to be dead?” she pressed, giggling a bit.
Isaac leaned down, looking at the knife that dripped with the fresh blood of all the unhappy children that lay slain about the piles of metal.
“I didn’t kill those kids,” he said. “I was being controlled. This cute little orb sort of, you know, took control of me.”
“It couldn’t have made you do it unless you had it in you to do it. You can blame anything you wish, but sooner or later you’re going to have to take responsibility for your actions.”
Isaac took the knife and stuck it in his chest. It was almost twice as painful as he imagined it would be. The knife didn’t really matter, His he knew, because his palm was empty anyway. His vision blurred and he fell to the ground. The last thing he heard was the young woman’s tireless giggle.
The blond apparition swam into view.
“What’s it like to be dead?” she asked, giggling, and turned to run. He tried to follow but fell to the ground.

After a long stretch of terrible, terrible blackness and soft rock Isaac rose to his feet. The young woman stood before him with a dandelion in her hand. His heart sank when he saw it. Everyone knew how terrible the sight of a dandelion was; it meant that someone was gone.
“Who are you?” he asked, trying to bring his vision back into focus. Without the Digitalis, he was dead or would be soon. He stumbled forward, beginning to feel dazed and nauseous.
The young girl smiled brightly again, like a silhouette amongst the blue tinted trees. She turned to run again. After a moment he calmed himself and followed after her.
Her young, infectious laugh echoed through the woods. Isaac swatted limbs and leaves out of the way as he ran. At each turn he saw her dress turn down another path. And in each path he heard the same echo of her hollow laugh as though she had just passed by.
“Not much further now,” she said. He barely heard her but stumbled blindly through the dark, running into limbs and trees as he tried to run.
“It’s not so far now,” she laughed. “Not so far at all.”
“Ha!” someone shouted, jumping in his way. He fell to the ground, slamming his head against a rock, and blanked out.
After what could’ve been forever, he woke up. The young girl had stopped running., stood on the shore, pointing upward to a light that went back and forth atop a mountain.
On the other side of the stream he saw all the bright light pouring in. There was no sun there, though; perhaps there never was. Maybe the sun that shined behind the maze was no mythical sort of sunshine. Maybe it was just an old lighthouse that someone simply got tired of tending to.
It was the lighthouse he’d heard about. At that moment he became entranced with the swaying motion of the light, and felt like a slave to it. Thousands of moths and bits of dust drifted in the beam.
He stood there a slave before the lighthouse in the rain, and destiny was the ball and chain.
“So, Ra’s Patio never really existed?” he asked, nonplussed, slumping onto the wet grass. He looked down at his hand. He was shocked to find it normal. There was a momentary feeling of relief and it passed into something not entirely unlike melancholy. He hated the Digitalis and his addiction to it, everybody did; in a way he’d allowed himself to get used to it, and after a while he depended on it. With the tips of his fingers he traced along the fresh skin, looking for the scars and scabs from the implant. They were gone as well.
“What’s it like to be dead?” she asked him again.
“Eh,” he said, “a bit too much like life for me. Heaven’s a bit of a let down. Where are all those angel things?”
“They’re asleep,” she replied. “They’ve got a long day of fluttering around and what not to take care of tomorrow.”
“Makes sense,” he said, reclining.
Twirling the dandelion in her little white hands, she knelt along the bank, looming over the surface. She watched her reflection for a minute with her fingers in the water, tracing the shapes of stars and things.
“Come and look,” she said, blowing on the flower. Isaac rose and watched it as bit by bit the seeds of silver floated above the water. Crickets chirped their little songs beside her, the wind teasing at her curly hair, and howling through the trees. The forest danced with shadows and was full of nighttime’s voiceless sounds.
“Look down,” she said as he towered behind her. She drug her fingers through the milky black water, eyes closed, and hummed the same sort of song the radiator did atop the hill. For a moment he turned his head as a goat crept through the grass. She called for him again, and he turned back to her as the goat passed into the dark.
“You see this reflection?” she asked him, turning a bit.
He looked over to her as the strange goat disappeared into the door. Kind of odd, he thought, but certainly within the realm of normal. He nodded.
“That’s what it’s like to be dead. To be still water glancing up.” Isaac nodded. With her hands on her stomach, still holding to the flowers stem, the young girl lay back against the cool grass and closed her eyes.
The dandelion seeds floated down the stream and, at last, drifted out of sight. Finally, he thought, I can finish my book. He took out his diary, thumbed to the last blank pages, and attempted to finish his story.
All the pages were blank. He flipped through them again and again but they remained blank. Then he flipped through them more angrily, and the paper remained unafraid of his angry flipping. The pages were gone, as was his story – Just a Flower.
Oh well, he thought, I could always write something different. Maybe something worth reading. Who would want to read a story about a lonely old miser, a miserable little misanthrope, and a blind violinist?
Just as good, he went on; I had no idea how to end it anyway. Things had started normal enough, he reflected on his story, but they’d really gotten out of hand

Aaron looked around as he stepped inside the maze. He stood in a doorway. He was suspended in a door that hung from a line, and he stepped down. The door slid to the side and another door came up beside where it had been. Everything inside the maze had changed. It all looked different when he looked at it from outside. It looked different than what he pictured it to be too. There were no men wrapped in plastic suits standing around with strange metal devices. The world he saw from outside had changed; the image in his mind was nothing like what he saw.
In front of him was a town. It seemed abandoned, and in front of him was a long sand passageway. Broken down houses and buildings lined the way. Bodies covered the streets in unfashionable clothes. He held out his hand, looking at the implant in his left, and noticed a piece of paper fall on it. Then more fell on it. Staring up he saw paper falling from the sky like rain. Bits of dirt swept across the street as he walked. Abandoned carts, wagons, horses, lined the wooden walkways.
He remembered Sam, down at Roma’s, telling him a story about what was the American west. But Sam said that was in the past. Then it came to him suddenly; he was in two overlapping realities and timelines that existed simultaneously. Either that or he really needed a drink and a nice sit down to regroup.
A small group of people clambered down the dirt road in front of him in a wagon. They wore dirty pants and dirty dresses. There was a woman in a blue dress with a light blue bonnet on her head. Beside her sat a little girl in white overhauls stained with grease. Their hands were shriveled up like leather and caked with coal and mud. Their faces were wrinkled up in sour expressions.
The man that sat at the reigns had a protruding bottom lip. A wad of snuff was stuffed down in it, packed in tightly. He tipped his hat at Aaron as he passed.
“Listen to him,” said the man in a rapid voice. “Listen to him, buddy. He’ll tell you what you need to do.”
“Who?” asked Aaron, “Who should I listen to?”
“Yourself,” said the man. His eyes were bloodshot and tired looking.
“Of all the people on earth,” replied Aaron, “that is one person I cannot trust.”
“If you can’t trust yourself,” said the man. “Who can you trust? Trust him and you’ll make it to the Patio.”
“Who are you?” Aaron questioned.
“I’m really not sure anymore,” replied the man. “I’ve got some problem with my memory. Alzheimer’s or something.”
He nodded and his rickety wagon passed on by.
Black lanterns hung by chains from posts at the end of each of the streets. They swung lithely back and forth, sending tiny trails of light through the boarded up buildings.
From behind Aaron came a quivering arm. It clasped his shoulder. He jerked around.
“Pardon me, sir,” said the man. “Would you happen to have anything to eat? I’m very hungry. Everything has died here. There’re no plants, animals, chicken broth – nothing. There’re only people here, memories and things.”
Aaron stared at him blankly for a moment. The man was at least seventy, though his eyes were young and bright, and he looked oddly familiar.
“I’m sorry,” Aaron said. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have anything. How old are you, sir?”
“Young,” said the man. “My name is Aaron.”
Aaron scrutinized his face. It seemed like his shadow had abandoned him because he smelled and decided to put on clothes and walk around imitating living people.
“Why do you look so old? Since I assume you’re me,” Aaron said.
“Something wrong with me, I guess. I take medicine for it. It doesn’t work, though.”
“What happened here?”
“Land start disappearing in the west,” he said, “so we all came here. Thousands came. During the migration a disease spread. Town was abandoned, people tried to flee, and they all left it like it is. It all goes to ruin, doesn’t it? And all I have is this little picture.”
He fished it from his pocket, handed it to Aaron.
It was a painting of what looked to be like the bars of a cage.
“What is this?” Aaron asked Aaron.
“For months a group of scientists tried to make an ape paint a portrait. They gave him plenty of food and his choice of all the female apes. He had everything he needed, they thought. So finally he painted this picture.”
“What is it?”
“The bars of his cage.”
Aaron shrugged, scratching at his chin. “This isn’t even probable,” he said finally. “How could this come about? All of this seems to be fiction, and not just untrue, but fiction. Thoughts come into my head and they’re not mine at all. They don’t even sound like me. I don’t want this to be fiction.”
The man laughed and stumbled out into the road. He ran across to the other side. Aaron followed him. They stood together again under one of the lanterns.
“There’s someone among you,” said the old man, “in connection with a world that’s real. Ours isn’t. But, you’ve known that for a long while. What happened with your paper cup, eh?”
“Elijah has it,” Aaron shrugged.
“He’s going to close the connection, isn’t he?” the old man asked.
“By catching the moth, yes?”
“Jolly good,” reflected the man, hobbling off. “I’m tired of all this bunk anyway. I didn’t ask to be created. I didn’t ask to come into existence just to bandy about shitty dialogue with you. But that is why I’m here. That’s my purpose, and like a robot, I have to do it. Come on, damn it. Come to my house. It’s a shack, really. Your god with Alzheimer’s didn’t think to give me much of shit.”
“Which world exists then? Ours or theirs?” Aaron asked.
“Depends on which way you look at it. If you look at it from your side, theirs is pure imagination. If you look at it from theirs, ours is just a little squib of an amateur novel. To Isaac, their world is the same thing. It’s a bit complicated.”
“So their world is parallel to ours?” The man nodded.
“The sun shines there? Like it does at Ra’s Patio?”
“All this is being written,” said the man. “You have to get to Ra’s Patio if you want to escape the Omnipotent writer’s control.”
“Well no shit,” Aaron said. “How am I to do that?”
“You have to set yourself on fire,” the man said with a slight frown. “Got to go through hell to get to heaven.”
“How do I know it’s even there, though?” Aaron asked.
“You just have to trust me.”
“But you’re me.”
“That’s right.”
“And, no offense, I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw me.” The old man laughed a bit uneasily, then forced a smile.
“You know a book is bad,” he said, “when the characters themselves just want it to be over with.”
“You say I have to set myself on fire,” Aaron replied with a jovial smile, “but, if I’m being controlled, do I really have a choice as to whether or not I’m going to do it or not? Because if I’m going to barbeque myself, I’d like to know if there are any side dishes to choose.”
“My world exists along with yours somehow, someway, something has broken. To allow all of these realities to just fall in together and mix.”
“The wheel,” Aaron said, suddenly thoughtful, “the wheel broke, and the Janitor’s are supposed to be fixing it.”
“Those folk are unreliable, you know. Bloody janitors. They have a job, though. There are millions of other worlds and realities; it’s an awfully big responsibility for a half dozen or so Janitor’s. You know, there’s a version of you I see in a mirror in my basement.”
“Is he having more fun than I am? I certainly hope not.”
“In his world, both books have been finished. The book that connected both the worlds has long been finished.”
“What’s it called?”
“Digitalis,” said the man.
“Is it as big a failure as I imagine it to be?” asked Aaron.
“Such a failure, in fact, the author has resigned himself to making socks.”
“Good,” said Aaron. “That’s what he gets for making us exist just to fuck with us. I swear, the nerve some people have.”
The man laughed, stumbling down the street. Aaron, in a kind of shock, followed after him.
“Isn’t Isaac writing a book too?” he called.
“Just a Flower,” the man called back. “It’s the book about their world. Digitalis, to them, is just a flower. Here, everybody makes it out to be so important.”
“Why don’t you have the implant?” Aaron asked.
“Because it’s not a part of the story. Same could be said about my, well, you know.”
“That’s nasty,” intoned Aaron mournfully.
“Doesn’t smell so ripe, either,” the other man pitched in. Aaron could’ve done without this tidbit, he imagined.
They disappeared into the alleyway behind one of the broken down saloons. Then beyond the paper rain and ruin and rundown buildings, he saw a light, high up in the sky.
“Is that it?” he said in awe. “Is that Ra’s Patio?”
“That’s it,” said the man. “That’s what everybody has been making such a fuss about. Now you can see it.”
The old man walked on. They walked in silence for a moment. Aaron looked up at the light in a trance, utterly drawn to it. He felt like a moth that fluttered under a streetlight, inexplicably inclined to swim up to it and circle around it.
The immense light bounded through the fog, sweeping back and forth.
Together they arrived at a curious looking shack off behind the other buildings. The sweet light of the Patio was muffled by the low hanging clouds as they ducked into the shack. Over every inch of the wall were papers, thrown about messily, and in no particular order at all.
“I’ve been hearing about that place my entire life,” said Aaron, staring at the pictures on the walls. “All we’ve ever heard. ‘What you do here doesn’t matter’ they say, ‘All that matters is making it to the Patio,’ they ramble and ramble. So life turns into nothing but a long, long maze. It’s like we’re rats and the Patio is the cheese.”
“I’ve always envied mice,” said the man. “The cheese they chase is real. And plus, they’re so cute.”
Aaron slumped into a chair and despaired.
“It isn’t about our world,” he said finally. “It’s about theirs.”
“You only have a few pages left, so off you go. Once you turn back onto the main road, head towards the mountain. Once you get to the bottom of the mountain, the only way you can make it to the Patio is to set yourself on fire.”
He nodded. The old man laughed again and asked kindly, “Would you mind giving me a cigarette?”
“I’m bumming off myself,” he said. “I’ve reached a new low. What makes you think I want to give myself any cigarettes if I’m not going to see me again?”
“Just shut the hell up,” replied the older, less sexy Aaron, “and give me a cigarette.”
Aaron dug for one in his pocket begrudgingly and gave himself a cigarette.
“And a lighter?”
“For fuck’s sake!” he screamed. “Here. Keep it.”
“No, no, I can’t keep it. I appreciate the gesture, but you have to use it to set yourself on fire. Here,” he handed it back, “thanks though.”
“No,” said Aaron, “thank you.” He walked out of the shack.
A moment later he stumbled back out into the main crossroad, weaving in and out of bones and buggies that littered the roads. Standing in the middle of the windswept road, he saw it again not too far away: the light atop the mountain.
For a while he tried to convince himself he wouldn’t have to set himself on fire. He felt rather like a turkey felt the day before Thanksgiving. He didn’t know what Thanksgiving was, but he was certain the word had cropped up into his head and meant something like genocide.
With an iffy step he felt something tip over at his feet. Looking down he saw it: it was a snow globe. Inside it he saw a young girl on a porch with a ball of gold lumbering in the air before her. It looked like a moth.
At that moment, as the moth inside the globe bobbed before her, he had another strange thought. He tried to ignore it for a minute. A minute later, he tried to ignore it for another minute.
We are overgrown moths with strange clothes, he thought. Has that been the purpose of the Patio all along? Just to give us some light to hover around? The moths probably told all their children the same things. Just to keep them from taking the time to invent mini malls or mini vans or mega meals.
Speaking of mega meals, he noticed his palm was empty. To add to the joyful thought of having to set yourself on fire, run out of Digitalis, and starve – he had to use the bathroom. Then he had another strange thought. Are there bathrooms up at the Patio? Because he was almost empty, and really had to go to the little boy’s room. No matter, he figured, no need to worry about emptying my bladder since I’ll empty it involuntarily once I immolate myself. Hoorah. Hopefully, he thought, he wont have the same body once he gets to Ra’s Patio. Wouldn’t want to go to heaven with dirty underwear.
Could be worse, though, he could just set himself on fire for nothing. Which was just as probable as getting some sort of otherworldly reward for it. Either way, it was unexpected. And certainly something new.
He walked up and stood in front of the high mountain. The light atop it oscillated back and forth. He took a match from his pocket, and sat at the base of the mountain with his legs crossed.
He struck the match.

If Aaron learned anything from his entire life, as he reflected on it now, it was this: being on fire isn’t a particularly nice feeling. He was at the base of the mountain, staring at the oscillating light atop it. And, by all degrees, he was on fire.
Then he realized he might have made a bad move in setting himself on fire just to get to a place that may or may not exist. If it existed, he reasoned, and then it’ll have been worth it; if it didn’t, he counter-reasoned, it would’ve been a pointless way of wasting his life. Not that he was that happy with it anyway.
He knew how terrible it must be to be a moth that gets too close. Finally he slumped over into a smoking heap and what little light there was went out.
Aaron finally came to his senses after what must’ve been a while. He looked down at his hands, after rubbing his face, and figured he’d been out long enough, at least, to be robbed. And now he was completely out of Digitalis.
And then he saw the sun peak through the blue-white sky and the birds swarming the trees. People had gathered around a line of picnic tables to talk and socialize with others. Across a small stream he saw a lighthouse, broken down and beaten. It was broken and the light, it seemed, had been busted out a long time ago.
It was never real; he thought to himself, Ra’s Patio was a myth, a legend. It was a myth, he repeated, it was a myth. Why had so many people fought and died to get here? he reflected, I suppose it was just to keep us sane, keep us going. Like lost ships looking for the shore.
Birds he saw and lots of them, doves and robins. A man that resembled Elijah walked by but didn’t pay much attention to him. Must’ve been Elijah, he thought. There were animals everywhere, too many in fact, and he walked up to a stream and sat down. There was life in his legs again, as there was in youth. And his face was cleaner than it had been. He moved with a new found freedom, without feeling that nagging sense of instinct or the writer pushing him on.
Could this be Ra’s Patio? he wondered, looking at a dandelion stem floating by. Or is it just my version of it? Dandelion seeds had gathered at the basin.
He saw himself as he was, then; he was normal and without any artificial implants. His eyes were human, not the big, swollen black globs they had been like the eyes of a fly. Then he did something so unutterably alien to him that it shocked him: he smiled.
After watching a young girl swimming around in a pool for a bit, with her blonde headed mother, he walked over to a tree and lay against it, closing his eyes. The young girl looked familiar, as the mother did, but Aaron didn’t think much of it. He closed his eyes with infinite calm and then he went to sleep.

In front of her along a long path sat a large, medieval looking castle. Flames burnt all around it. Shapes of trees stood between the light blue sky surrounding the castle, they loomed like giant, lifeless silhouettes.
She tried to keep quiet as she inched along the cobblestone passage, lined in burning grass, so as not to alert the attentive winged creatures that stared at her from the black, twisted trees. There were sounds that rattled through the trees. Leaves rustled and the long forgotten crickets chirped.
After looking around for a moment, she walked towards the giant door. In front of the wooden door ran a small lake. In the lake she saw the familiar faces. The faces she had seen in the Vanishing River’s – they swam in and out of one another.
Poor dead people, she thought, must’ve been some time since they had anything decent to eat. It’s been a while since I’ve had anything decent to eat. Inside the mirage like castle, she heard screams and what sounded to her like hammers being drug along a glass corridor.
The big draw bridge, held by finely hewn rope, began to lower. It coughed and hacking as it slid down before her.
Shivering, she walked across it. The giant wooden door opened before her. Inside she saw a long red carpet wrapped in golden trim; transparent paintings lined the hallway. These massive paintings hung parallel to each all along the lantern lit corridor. Gentle flames bath the soft color of the velvet carpet.
On the first painting, she noticed, inching along the corridor, there was a young girl on a boat. She sat in the middle of a serene, calm ocean, looking upwards to a billowy blue and white sky. Her finger pointed to a lighthouse, high up on a cliff. At the end of the hall was another door of thick, splintered looking wood. Beyond it she heard the same screeching sounds on glass. A single torch hung on the door. The radiating light drew Anne in. She walked up to it quietly, tiptoeing, and ran her gloved hand along the splintered surface.
In the center was a small hole, and in the small hole was a small box, and on the small box there were four panels.
At the top in white a panel read out GOD. Under it were three smaller panels, like drawers. The panel on the top, on a black background in small white letters, read out FATHER. Under it the panel read out MOTHER, and under it the panel read out SON.
Oh God, Anne thought, the Omnipotent Writer was about to get preachy. She felt along the smooth surfaces and the bottom drawer, reading mother, slid out to the touch.
It’s enough, she thought on, to bore his readers out of their minds with character development, obscene attempts at profundity, cursory attention to dialogue and detail, but to cap all this off with a sermon? She felt intense hatred at the thought of her being the proxy for a pontificating retard with nothing to do but preach behind a typewriter. She shook with fury as she did as he made her. To anyone that’s reading, and hopefully that’s no one, I know that this may seem hard to trudge through for you. But how do you think I feel? You might have to read this sort of gibberish, but at least you don’t have to live it.
“Oh, now she’s preaching to us,” you could say.
“This story continues to get more absurd,” you could also say. That is something I’ll agree with. I was done with this whole thing around the time we ended up at the Trans-dimensional Waffle House. Actually, it goes back farther than that. Around the time the quarters started crying, I knew I was in for a bad life.
That’s essentially the problem, too, Anne rambled on to no one, I didn’t ask to be here. How are you? you might ask. I’m not sure, actually. First there was an infinite stretch of what I assume to be nothingness. Either that or I was really drunk for a while. Whatever it was, nothingness, drunken haze, I was quite enjoying it. And then… and then! Bam! Here I am. I exist and I’m trapped inside some sort of ridiculous maze. I don’t understand anything. Things were actually fine before the snow globe broke. Then I had no sort of consciousness, no real sense of perception, and everything was great. It was like waking up from a long and terrible dream. It’s been down hill since then.
Inside the small drawer there was an egg. The egg was pretty much an egg on all accounts, nothing particularly worth remarking on. Save for the fact that it smelled almost entirely different than an egg smelled, and in fact seemed more closely related to a boot than to a chicken ovulation. Maybe, she thought, this was the type of chicken that rooster’s never took home to meet their mother’s.
“Don’t smash the egg,” she heard inside her ear. “It smells, yes, but that doesn’t give you permission to smash it.”
She looked around the silent hallway. The parallel paintings along the way danced. Inside the frames the pictures were animated.
Which one do I open first? Anne asked herself, hoping that herself knew the answer because if not she was certainly in trouble. Both of them. The voice inside her ear spoke again but softly, coming out as a muffled whisper in her pocket.
“Pull the drawer labeled GOD,” said the voice. “Hurry before it locks up.”
“Who are you?” Anne asked.
“I am you,” Anne replied.
“I don’t trust you,” Anne told herself sternly.
Anne reached out to pull the handle. It was locked up.
“Ha! You should’ve listened to me,” she told herself triumphantly, enthusiastic at her demise. “Now, open the one that says SON before it locks up. You need it at the gate.” Anne pulled the golden knob and the box saying SON slid open. Inside the small box was a golden key.
“Use it to open the GOD box,” the voice said. “That key is the only thing that can open it. You’ll need it at the gate.”
On the panel above the box saying SON a keyhole formed around the center of the GOD box. Anne stuck the key into it and turn it. It crept open slowly. Inside it was a pair of yellow latex gloves, clutched in one was a single screw.
She put the screw in her pocket as all the drawer panels slid back shut. The giant door on which it hung by suspended cables opened. With hesitation Anne crossed into the other room. All was quiet around her, save for the consistent pitter patter of her ragged boots along the crystal floor.
At the end of the hall she saw the shadow of what appeared to be a man, but something about the figure was more ominous. In the outline she saw a tall hat, a man in a chair, and the man held a staff in his left hand. He was hunched over in a tangled knot of quilts and a long, intricate white robe that flowed before him on the floor.
Inch by inch along the hall she made her way to him. Torches flickered in the dark, sending shadows into flight along the wall. The warm and gentle fire light sent dark shadows crawling among the hollowed holes of his eyes
Beside him was a steel column that glittered in the dark, on the front of it there was a small blue button, and beside it was a small change slot. Digging into her pockets she found a Styrofoam cup. It looked exactly like the one that Aaron gave Elijah. She was sure that it hadn’t been there sooner, and assumed that Elizabeth or Thomas had some sort of control over what was going on.
She held the cup before her, just in front of the man, turned it over and shook. Three quarters rattled out, sounding like glass as they hit the floor. She knelt to pick them up. Turning them over, she noticed they were crying as they had been.
In front of her the mechanical man lay silent, inactive. Cobwebs wrapped around his shriveled hands and fingers. The same sounds of bottled glass scraping cross the floor rose up again. It seemed far off.
“The quarters,” she heard, “send them through the slot.”
The tears that dripped from their silver faces had stopped. She sent them through the slot and backed away as the man in robes rose up, eyes glittering in the dim light of the long white corridor, and she slowly backed away.
“Want to get into Ra’s Patio?” asked the mechanical man, whose arms now jutted up and outward mechanically.
“Yes,” Anne said in a whisper, looking to her almost empty palm.
“First, you’ll have to answer a few questions,” the mechanical voice replied.
“Which are?”
“What are you?” he asked.
“Is this multiple choice?” Anne asked sarcastically, getting increasingly annoyed by the Omnipotent Writer’s silliness.
“Answer the question.”
“I am a human being,” she said.
“Which is what?”
“It is what I am.”
“Yes,” he whispered, “but to what are you referring when you say ‘I’?”
“Myself,” she said, annoyed.
“Which is?”
“God damn it!” she shouted. “Get to the fucking point!” She shook with fury, feeling the strong desire to forget about the Patio altogether.
“How can you get to Heaven if you don’t know what you are?” The machine smirked. Obviously, he was very pleased with himself.
“Fine,” she said. “I know a bit of science…”
“Go on,” he insisted.
“OK,” she said, “Humans are bipedal primates of the genus homo.”
“Is that what you are, then?”
“Yes,” she bit her lip, “I’m sure.”
“Alright then,” he said. “Ready for the next question?”
“You have before you a fortune cookie. Yes? Yes. You have a fortune cookie,” he paused. “Do you know what those are?”
“Yeah,” she said, “cookies that come with fortunes, I presume.”
“Good, good. You have a fortune cookie before you on a plate. You break it apart, open it up, and read the fortune. It reads: all fortune cookies are wrong. Is it right?”
Anne’s face went blank for a moment. She looked at the man, looked back down the torch bathed hall, and then stopped as though the gerbil in her brain stopped running.
“What!” she stammered. “It’s right…Wait, no, if it’s right … that means that all fortune cookies are wrong, and since it’s a fortune cookie… it’s wrong, but that means its right…So, its right. But since it’s right.. That means…” She felt at that moment she could pull her own teeth out. It’s a shame, she thought, a writer can provide anything. He can give his characters life, or death, but never a choice. No real choice, anyway. They come along as the characters do, one after the other, and they just act as they’re commanded. He could give me a drug, without which I can’t survive at all, but he can’t give me a sledge hammer to pound the shit out of whatever this is before me? Not fair at all, she thought, not fair. The fortune cookie paradox had wrapped itself around her head completely.
“So it’s wrong?”
“It’s a fortune cookie, you know. If it’s right, that means it’s wrong.”
“You son of a bitch!” she screamed, “Just tell me the answer.”
“I refuse,” he crossed his arms smugly, “but, I’ll go on to the next question.”
“Just get on with it.”
“Man A is from Universe A. Man B is from Universe B. In Universe B, words mean their opposites. Yes means no, and no means yes. Do you follow?”
Anne nodded.
“Man A meets with Man B and they have a conversation. The conversation is as follows:
Man A asks, ‘Did you have sex with my wife?’ Man B says, ‘No.’
Man A asks, ‘Are you lying to me?’ Man B says, ‘Yes.’
Is man A lying?”
Anne stood for a moment, looking intently at the man. She felt the same terrible twinge in her head again.
The man looked at her smugly.
“No. Although no means yes, he says yes, which means no, to the question as to whether or not he was lying. Therefore, Man B is telling the truth.”
She looked at him. He smiled a wry smile and chuckled.
“How can Man A be lying if he’s not being questioned?”
Anne felt her heart stop again. She was practically shaking with anger.
“I’m just joking with you,” he said. “Do you have the key?” She nodded.
“Good,” he said. A panel in his chest slid out. Inside it was an axe, a single yellow pill, and an egg.
“Behind me is a door,” he went on. “On the other side of it, you’ll have three choices. One of them will take you to the shore of Ra’s Patio. The other two will send you off to the Vanishing River’s. Let’s go.”
Then the lights went out.
Anne quivered in the dark. There were sounds coming from the castle, sounding light giant feet stomping. Her heart stopped for a moment when the lights flicked back on. She looked around, breathing heavily, sweating and afraid. The color had drained from her face.
When the light came on, Anne stood alone inside a tiny chamber, before a small window. There Anne stood before three choices as it were. Out a window, through a screen, over dark and over trees, she saw a light sweep by once and then again. The room was white, and behind her the man had lapsed back to silence.
She saw her hand and saw the inky bit of black at a low level in the vial. In front of her to the left was a giant drum of Digitalis, marked clearly. This would be more than enough to refill, several times in fact, but the man told her she’d have to make a choice between the three.
In front of her beside the drum sat a fancy meal, steak and potatoes, with red wine beside it on a small chair to wash it down. To the right of this sat her battered dancing shoes.
The thought that seized her mind wasn’t actually evident at the time, but could be briefly transcribed as a mixture between the following phrases: what the hell, this is ridiculous, food is more important than dancing shoes, Digitalis is more important than food, and both are more important than an old pair of haggard dancing shoes that probably didn’t even fit.
After this slipped off her brain, an even sillier thought of inadequate expression crept in: this has to be a trick, nobody would throw in such a silly, backwards choice.
It was like giving a man three horses to choose from: the first two would be incomparable, brilliant equine specimens: the third would be a half blind donkey with a wooden leg and a chemical dependency. That’s the choice she had. And for the most ridiculous reason, she chose the donkey.
Sitting there with her shoes, that still had the ripe smell of age on them, she slumped against the wall. The room was dark, but occasionally the light swept through the grated window, sending fragments floating on the floor. In the left corner, the Digitalis was hardened, frozen, and beside the drum the food had rotted. Her shoes were just as they had been.
So she sat to wait and die. Despite the frequent pain and unease that nature sent through her, she was much relieved. She was tired, taxed, and just tired of putting up with everything. Elijah was enough to drive any normal person to suicide at least twice.
When the light swept through the window once again she saw a door opposite of her. The only thing increasingly strange about the door was that nothing was increasingly strange about the door. She rose from the corner and crossed the room. The door was locked and with tears in her eyes, she slumped back to the ground.
She realized, when she was dying, that she probably should’ve chosen one of the other horses. The horse in the middle would’ve been decent, but the Digitalis, that probably would’ve been better. But she had her shoes at least. They probably wouldn’t be taste as good as, say, a steak, but she could gnaw on them in a pinch.
She’d gnawed on them for twenty or so odd minutes and was still dying just as quickly as she was before she started gnawing on them. Only now she was dying and she had a foul taste in her mouth. It’d been a silly sort of day.
She had always hated her life, but she had gotten a bit used to it. The light swooped around the room again and she passed out of consciousness entirely.
“You are currently being transferred,” a voice said to her. “Please enjoy your music.”
Then the dreadful, unholy sounds of children weeping, monsters screaming, and Kenny G tore into her ears.
“Hello?” she said. “What am I being transferred from?”
“You were alive,” said the nonchalant voice of an overtaxed phone assistant. “Now you’re not.”
“So,” she said, “I’m dead?”
“Not really,” said the Operator. “You’re in between. We’re transferring you over to death. Please hold.”
The terrible, unholy, unspeakable horror of light rock flooded her ears again.
“Just kill me already,” she screamed.
“We’re doing our best,” the Operator said, “You’re having a bit of trouble letting go.”
“To my life? Of course, I knew some of those people.”
“No, you’re standing on one of the main cables. We’re sending a Janitor out.”
“Those guys are worthless,” she yelled. “How can you trust the fabric of reality to a bunch of incompetent Janitors? Will I go to Ra’s Patio?”
“Here at first Death International, our job is to simply talk you through the transfer process. We have nothing to do with soul placement, reincarnation, or transmigration. I could give you a number for the head office; they could connect you to Body’s International, an excellent transmigration company, albeit pricy.”
“How long have you been working there?” Anne asked.
“Almost ten thousand years now,” the woman said, “but I get paid vacations every fifteen hundred years, and we get dental.”
“Good to hear,” Anne said. “How much longer is it now?”
“All in place,” chirped the Operator. “Here at First Death International, we hope your dying experience has been enjoyable. Thank you for dying with us, and have a nice afterlife.” Finally, the wretched music stopped.
When Anne awoke the swooping light had ceased. It was replaced by the shattered bits of steady light that poured in from outside the window. The small screen split the light into tiny, squared slivers. Specks of dust floated in the slanting rays of sun. The small chamber behind the wall was now well lit. In front of her stood the door with the golden knob. She rose to her feet and walked towards it.
She thought back to what Aaron told her of Digitalis. The symptoms, effects, what have you. She thought of how much she loathed Elijah, even though she adored being around him. Crazy as hell, but entertaining.
She opened the door and stepped into a long hallway. Along the wall were transparent mirrors. In one she saw herself at a funeral. It appeared to be her own. She sighed; disappointed at the clothing they chose to bury her in. Across from it, she stood at the edge of a river with a dandelion in her hand. The walls were white and the windows were accentuated by thick and brown borders. The second along the wall was livelier than the first two funerals. There was an old man sitting in an alleyway with a brown bag propped on his chin. Opposite of it she saw a hillside stretching far off in the distance. A kid bobbed along in the grass with a kite. Inside each mirror was a different world, reality, and some of them even had strange turtles driving around in unfashionable go-carts in even more unfashionable clothes.
In each mirror she saw something different though familiar. At the end of there was another door. It glowed with a brilliant tint of blue. Her work weary dress flowed behind her as she walked the hall. She opened the door at the end and stepped into the sun.
In the distance she saw a lighthouse, broken down, with hundreds of people sitting around it sipping fancy drinks and talking about other fancy drinks they’d recently been sophisticated enough to come across.
A lamb rubbed at her leg. She reached out to pet the lamb and stopped, looking down at the tangled line of wrinkles in her hand. The vial was gone as were all traces of it.
She looked across the rich green meadow. It was overflowing with vibrant colors and life. A small group of people huddled around a picnic table, singing songs and just being generally chipper. As much as she hated it, she walked over to them and acted chipper too.
She saw Aaron sleeping by a tree with a strange smile on his face. She smiled, helping a small group of children set the picnic table.
I guess we made it, she thought, too bad I had to starve to death to get here.
The strings that the author held her with had been cut, and she was now free to live whether she wanted to or not.
She sat down on one of the small, brown chairs and took a sip out of a Styrofoam cup. She picked it up and shook it. Something rattled down inside it.
She turned the cup over and a small, red, triangle shape tumbled onto the table cloth. In the distance she saw a group of Janitors leaning against a small van, packing up their brooms and brushes and mops and cases of beer.
Wyatt nodded at her and disappeared. It must be lunch hour, she thought.

The door behind Elijah shut and he stumbled to the ground. He spent a full twenty minutes or so cursing at the door, yelling derogatory remarks about the door’s mother, and then insisted he would do things to the door that would make a proctologist blush with shame.
The road before him was paved with harsh, grey gravel. A heavy fog drifted above the passageway. To his sides off in the trees were tall, waving grey shapes. They looked like trees and swayed like trees. So, he concluded, they must be trees. He walked on.
In his left palm the black, inky Digitalis was running low. He knew what would happen if it went completely empty: he’d lose his mind and be lost amongst the rest of the people wondering around the maze, looking for the lighthouse atop the cliff.
Through the mist he saw it. Its oscillating light beamed back and forth across the trees, back and forth across the bones of the thousands that died inside the maze, never to see the glistening sand on the shore.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something jump into the forest to his side. Then he heard music. It was a loud, up-tempo type of blues that he’d never heard before. He turned towards the sound and saw a path through the trees. Small light bounded across the path; dust glittered in the beams of light.
He weaved in and out of one passage after another, following the strange music. Around every corner there were skeletons against the trees and hedges, some smiled, some winked, but none of them really had much to say in terms of interesting conversation. Conversation with the living is bad enough, though Elijah, stepping over a pile of bones, but a conversation with the dead is just as pointless.
Along the path the fog grew denser. His hands reached out into the mist and groped and probed; his ears strained to follow the music through the twisting passages. Then he came to a passage that was obscured by a man. The man had swollen cheeks.
“Open the book,” he heard in his pocket. “It’ll bring out the real moth.”
He dug into his pockets looking for Anne’s ragged book. Finding it, he flipped it open and thumbed through the pages.
All the pages were blank except one: in cursive writing across the page read: hold the paper cup and hold it upside down; under it strike a flame. The moth will see the light, the real moth, and will flutter towards it.
The man at the end of the maze opened his mouth. The end of the passage turned completely into gold as thousands of moths fluttered from the old man’s mouth.
Elijah took the cup from one pocket and his lighter from the other and held it up. The moths swarmed along the passageway, thousands of them, swimming in and out of the giant golden circle they created. The man’s head reclined. The sound of air, like a vacuum, was coming from his mouth.
A single moth stood out from the rest as the light lit up the paper cup. It jerked towards one of the hedges and low to the ground flew towards Elijah.
Elijah hummed a lullaby he learned on his farm as the moth bobbed and bounced before him, staring at the cup.
“Now!” he heard a voice yell, and in a swiping motion trapped the moth inside the cup and crumpled it.
The crumpled cup fell from his hand and disappeared as it hit the ground. At the end of the maze the man that stood before him disappeared as well. He fumbled along inside his jacket, looking for the shard of glass, but it was gone as well.
It had taken him hours to make his way to the end of the maze and now, behind where the man had been, he saw the door. Inside his hand he saw as well that all the Digitalis was gone, and arrogantly he’d neglected to take enough food to really survive.
He slumped against the wall, knowing that he was starving, and his palm was on its final drop. I’ve come too far, he thought, looking at the doorway into paradise, to fall two feet short because of my own arrogance. I never really thought that death could catch me, his mind went on as a tiny figure bobbed its way towards him through the gloom, but we’re all born with a ticket to the Pine Express. And when the conductor shouts out ‘last call!’ we have to board the train.
He’d almost drifted into sleep when a strange sound roused him. He was dizzy and the walls around him spun. He had to labor to get his eyes open. Then a chicken walked up and stood before him, stopping, and sat down.
Tears streamed from his eyes because at that moment, he knew the only way he’d be able to survive.
Not again, he shouted out to no one, not again. Instinctively he felt along his ankle, crying as he groped for the knife he carried. He didn’t want to do it; there was no way he could allow himself to do it again. His hand squeezed around the handle of the knife and he drew it above his head.
Not again, he thought, not again. He saw the faces on the farm of the goats he rolled with in the meadows before he found the pink slipper at the end of the road. He saw the blank, unflinching expressions as he killed them just to eat. He saw all the faces in the River’s – green, outlined in grey as though drawn with an outline by a child. And he saw he had a choice: he could kill the chicken, eat, and make his way to paradise, or he could sit there and starve to death.
Either way, he realized, he’d have to do something quickly. The lighthouse’s ever shining light was growing dim. It seemed to him then that the doors of paradise were going to close on him like they had on all the creatures to whom the bones belonged to. All the ones he’d stepped over through the narrow passageways.
Either he act, or someone would step over his bones. He looked at the innocent face of the chicken, then down at his knife, then up to the chicken once again, then he looked down at his empty palm.
The muscles in his body tensed up. He saw the woman smirking at him from behind her podium and the scantly clad jury. He heard those words again. Finally he made his choice.

Elijah stared down the chicken without mercy. He chicken bobbed in front of him. He kept his eyes fixed on it as it clucked and strutted back and forth, looking more like a drumstick with a beak than an animal.
Elijah looked at his hand. It was as empty as his belly. The chicken in front of him would be the only way to survive. He could either eat the chicken and survive, or stare the chicken down until he died.
He thought of the other version of himself. The handsome man he met at Mike’s. He wondered if he would find his way to any sort of Patio, real or otherwise fabricated.
For a while a strange thought made its way into his head. The light drew him in irresistibly. He remembered a story he heard at Roma’s about a man and his robot. It made him wonder about himself.
Far off somewhere a man had made a robot to keep him company. His dog died around the same time his wife did and he was going crazy with loneliness. So he made a robot.
The robot was intended to emulate and react exactly like human beings. He had a gentle face, pale skin, and wide, never blinking, blue eyes.
For a long time the disconcerted robot went about his weary way. He cleaned porches, inns, sleeping mats, and he cleaned himself occasionally too.
One night a woman found her husband dead in the middle of the town. The town was small with one long road dividing the main square, which was full of old stores and saloons and meat shops. The man was dead in the road. He had motor oil on his face.
The city comes around to confront the man and his robot. They show up with torches and guns in hand. They jerked the scientist out into the night air. When they found the robot, he was in the bathroom with a knife between his teeth, crying and shouting.
There were those among the crowd that wondered which of them should be hung. The robot had committed the crime, but the man made the robot. Who was to blame? A formal inquiry was made to the town hall, and in the end – the man was blamed for the murder and hung. His robot was disassembled and made into toasters and cookware.
Elijah thought of this as the chicken bobbed in front of him. His brain told him to die with dignity, his natural instinct said the brain had been under a lot of stress lately and his opinion was to be taken with a grain of salt.
Nature thronged away at him. His stomach growled. Sweat gathered on his forehead and dripped down to his cheeks, into his thick mustache. He sat there under the swinging light of Ra’s Patio in the distance. He knew it was near, but he knew what he’d have to do to get there.
For a time he sat there with the choice lodged in his brain firmly. There was no doubt as to what he was going to do. The only doubt was when it was going to be.
The light shone back and forth. Bits of light splintered through the tangled maze. Then in his head he heard the woman yelling at him from behind her podium. Murderer! She shouted, ghastly fiend!
Who is to blame? he asked, remembering the old scientist story, “Me, or the man that put the knife between my teeth?”
You are a murderer just the same! she beamed. To this the jury, in his head, reclined and clicked their teeth together. A strange man sat by the door, which was forever locked by a strange combination lock.
The chicken strutted past him and passed out of sight. He felt the heavy world slip off his shoulders. After a long period of silence, stillness, and a definite feeling of something that wasn’t there, life stirred around inside of him.
There was a bunch of noise around him as his ears refocused. He opened his eyes, finding himself on his knees in the stuffy, dark, and dank courtroom. The leering woman, high above him on her pedestal, looked at him for a long while.
“So,” the woman said, “with light of this new evidence…” She adjusted her bifocals, continued, “In light of this new evidence, I absolve you. You are free.”
She said this with a strange sort of smile. The sound of her gavel striking rang out in the courtroom. He looked up at her and nodded wistfully. The
Rising to his feet, he saw the courtroom cleared. All of the skeletons in cheap business suits had disappeared, and the woman behind the podium had disappeared as well. A strange man stood by the door. There was a giddy sort of smile wrapped round his pudgy face.
“No strings attached,” said the man.
This is how it feels to be free, he thought, walked over to the door. The lock was gone. The door hung open on its hinges, with light sneaking through the small crack.
With his ear to the door he heard the clucking of chickens, the sound of goats, cows, and horses. And with this in mind, he turned the knob. He walked out into the beautiful sun and shut the door behind him. It crept to close with a squeak.
On the ground again, slumped against a tree, he wondered what he’d do now. Life was pretty much over for him the moment he realized the meaning of it. He didn’t know what he would do, really, but the first thought that came to his mind was to write down some sort of document detailing his travels through the maze, beyond Roma’s, and up onto the shore of Ra’s Patio.
There was a tall mansion looming in the distance with circular ramps circling it. Lavender clouds wrapped round the highest of the peaks gently and with great love. A cloud shaped like a bird thundered overhead, flapping giant cloudlike wings.
There was a woman sitting under an awning with one missing pink slipper. Elijah chuckled to himself a bit and began to walk over to her.
What will I do now? he thought as he walked in giant strides, I’m more than likely dead. There’s no chance of me getting a credit long, but either way it’s serious.
Around him he saw the faces of many of the people that floated down the empty River’s, splashing like bubbles in the water. And Elijah, a bubble too, took a sit in a lavish long chair and reclined his head. His hand was as normal as it had been in the pastures of his childhood. And here, he thought, I’ll roam the meadows once again.
Chapter 6

When the coffee tin dissolved, taking with it the golden moth, our lives returned to normal. Those lazy ass Janitor’s finally got the wheel spinning again, and our world was populated again with cities, cars, mini malls, mega stores, and all the cigarettes I could possible smoke. That’s the problem with half the world disappearing; there’s a major cigarette shortage and it’s nearly impossible to run hooch out of a cramped basement.
I was glad to settle back into my monotonous routine of waking up, smoking, loafing about, playing chess and staring into my telescope as the stars returned. One by one they glittered in the sky again. Herman woke up in his writing room with a severe hangover, wondering what he’d been drinking, and I asked him where he was the night before.
“I had a dream,” he said, “that I was in a small hut, surrounded by beads and things, and then I was standing in a hedge maze, and there was moths all over the place. They was coming outta my mouth, ha, I guess I have some crazy dreams.”
“Sounds like something out of that story,” Elizabeth said. “Have you finished it?”
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I woke up …”
“Sounds terrible,” I chipped in.
“I woke up and the last pages were blank. I was sure I had the story finished, but I forget things sometimes.”
Elizabeth looked at me and nodded. I looked at her and gestured towards my crotch, smiling widely. She told me to go fuck myself in sign language, and I laughed.
“So,” Herman said, “y’all want a sandwich? Bacon? You know, some lettuce…”
“We’d love one,” Elizabeth said. I agreed, and Herman scuttled off into the kitchen.
“I guess things are going to be back to normal,” she said. The plates were clanging around in the kitchen, small knives were grating against mayonnaise jars.
“Yeah,” I said, lighting a cigarette, “as terrible as it sounds, I’m glad to be able to just be bored and annoyed with being bored and annoyed. Maybe my guitar teacher will actually teach me some guitar.”
“You never even played for him, did you?” she asked, her eyes getting increasingly greyer.
I waved my hand in front of her face. Her eyes looked ahead blankly. With the link dissolving, her vision went with it.
“You can’t see?” I asked. Pulling a guitar from a stack of papers on the floor.
“Not since you caught the moth,” she said, “but, I missed the all the grey shapes.”
“How can you be glad to be handicapped again?” I asked, “Wasn’t the world prettier in color?”
“It’s strange,” she asked. “I hated going blind, I hated having to be led around like a dog, but most of all I hated having to guess what my friends looked like. When I got my vision back, I missed not being able to see. I hated being handicapped, but I got used to it, and then I, I guess, I started to rely on it.”
“I hope y’all are hungry,” Herman said, bounding back into the room with two plates, two glasses of orange juice, and a smile which would commonly suggest he’d just gotten away with murder.
He handed me the plate, which I sat beside me on the floor, and Elizabeth snapped her violin case, sat it aside, and took the plate from him graciously.
“Thanks Herman,” she said. “You really know how to make a sandwich.”
“Right before I went into the army, I used to have to make all my own food. Momma used to tell me, ‘Hermie, there’s tomatoes in on the counter, bacon in the fridge, and you know where the bread is,’ then she’d go off the work. I liked making them, especially because it was like putting a puzzle together. You know, it’s a lot harder to make one of those than it is to make a regular ham sandwich. You got like four pieces to deal with…”
Herman stopped abruptly and looked over at me. I strummed the first notes of ‘Wheels’ by Chet Atkins. The worried, overly excited look on his face was replaced by a serene, calm stare.
I just closed my eyes and played, hoping that Elizabeth would be impressed. Peacocks have feathers for a reason, and I surely couldn’t afford a flip down DVD screen on a bum’s salary. The union was going to strike in September, though, but that’s months away.
“That’s good,” he said calmly. “Real good, buddy.”
I went to set the guitar down to eat my sandwich. He held up his hands and said, “No, please, keep playing. I’ll put your sandwich in the fridge or make you another one. Just keep playin’, buddy.”
So I rocked back and forth and finished the song, tapping my foot. Elizabeth seemed to be enjoying herself.
“You’re really good,” Herman said. “You know, I could probably teach you something. Maybe you could teach me something; you never know. How about you come over round Saturday and we get to know each other, have a bite to eat, and talk about what you want to learn. What kind of music do you want to play?”
“Blues,” I said, going into a different song.
“Ah, blues, yes,” he replied. “Your daddy told me you liked the blues. You like classical music too, right? I think he said something about it.”
“That sounds good, man,” I said, “Real good.”
Elizabeth smiled.
“You know,” she said, “you’d look better if you cut that hair.”
“That’s exactly why I don’t cut it.”
I guess in fiction people grow. They overcome the constraints of their character and become stronger. Or they could do as the living do, and that is, essentially, nothing at all.
Sol returned along with the rest and fell back into their routines. Sol got up every morning, and so did I, rolled out of bed, as did I, and went about our motions. Wake up, brush teeth (optional), take shower (negligible), annoy family members and friends (essential), and just generally loaf around.
My brother and I still played chess, I still pretended to take it easy on him, and I continued to do the best thing anyone could do with life: waste it. You might think that’s cynical or pathetic. I’d admit to one of the two, or both, but it doesn’t seem to me that bagging groceries at a quick stop to be much better in the cosmic sense of things.
Sol would rise regardless if I did or not, and will long after I stop doing so. Long after Herman gets up again to peak around the corner of his dirty bedroom, looking for his band. Long after Elizabeth’s vision fails completely, and long after every mini mall has collapsed into the ground.
It’s sad when your entire psychological makeup is based around the conclusion that nothing matters, that everything is useless and pointless. What makes it even worse is finding something that does matter, something that is useful, and something that has a point. And the worse feeling of all is knowing that in the right perspective, that special thing, that something useful, it doesn’t really make much difference either.
Whenever you find yourself in Dixie Land, home to thousands of generally unfair and propaganda based stereotypes, come around and find me or someone like me. We’ll do nothing, nothing at all, but we’ll enjoy it. Maybe we could even call on Herman if they haven’t shipped him off to the River’s he wrote about.
What have I gathered from all of this? We’re all cripples. Cheerful, isn’t it? The Digitalis that Herman wrote about shows up in many forms. Some take pills, injections, and some drink coffee every morning. Just to keep them going, and for what? Some look for Heaven, others look for hell, and some just want to ride the pine express in the ground to sleep. Some look for Ra’s Patio.
I guess we’re all looking for the same thing. We can call it what we will. Heaven, Nirvana, Fantasy Island. In the end, I guess, we’re all looking for Ra’s Patio. A better place, where the sun shines. Actually, I could deal without all that sun. Sol’s been working for about four billion years now, and it’s about time for her to take a long vacation. When I started writing this, I wondered if anyone would believe me. I wondered if people would be able to suspend disbelief long enough to not hate the story enough to hunt me down and demand I perform small favors for them.
Granted, not many people are often asked to accept things as I’ve described, Immortal Janitors, doors in sandboxes, and a southerner that brushes his teeth – I know these are all things people might find hard to believe.
If it’s easier to think that I’m just as out of my mind as everyone said Herman was, then that’s fine with me. I never believed Daniel Paul Schreber’s accounts, Joan of Arc, or even the accounts in the Bible. Not just the Christian Bible, but the Hindu’s Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran, or any claims that aren’t supported by scientific evidence.
In truth, I don’t much believe myself when I look back over what I’ve written. But Omar Khayyam says as well, in his Rubáiyát:

The moving finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a line, Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

And this, of course, is true. And with this, I’ll leave you. After putting you through all this, it’s the least I can do.

Chapter 7
Yesterday’s Inkstrokes

I was eighteen years old when I first ran across Herman and his hummingbird, Elizabeth the blind violinist and the golden moth. Nothing much has happened since, really. I grew up, I’m sad to say, and watched everything grow up around me. Of course no one believed any of it. Publisher’s rejected the story as fantastical or hallucinations. My family didn’t much care for it either.
My life continued much as it did when I met Herman, for a while anyway. I loafed around, smoked cigarettes, and got drunk occasionally. I kept looking at the sky with my brother and eventually he did kick my ass in chess. I stayed there with him for many years I was content in doing nothing.
Around age twenty three or so, Herman finally got shipped off to the Vanishing River’s in Columbia. I went and saw him a couple of times. Each time I saw him, he asked me why I never came to see him. Each time I went to see him, he thought it was the first time I had been there. And every time he cried and apologized. “Something wrong with my memory,” he said. And he always asked me about Hank. Hank never called.
No one paid much attention around here, so not many people even knew that he was gone. There were no great ceremonies, speeches, or quotable epigraphs concerning him. There are no great observations in real life. They come from concentrated books and movies. Maybe there was nothing I could say about Herman to show anyone who he was or why he lived. Maybe I just glimpsed the surface.
There are thousands of people like him tucked away in nursing homes with nothing left to hold onto but a stack of Polaroid’s and those Precious Memories albums. And each day to them is like another bit of sand falling from the hourglass, sweeping them completely under the rug. Their children or family don’t much care, either. They’ve got beer to drink, television to watch, and socks to make.
People around here don’t always grow and overcome some great struggle in their life, or see the errors of their ways. Most people just live, whether they want to or not. They walk up and down Main collecting cans, reading the paper in front of the drug store. Or they rake leaves and burn them in the fall. They don’t live the kind of lives you see on television, in upper case. But they live, and around here, that’s enough.
The cement streets along the house where I was born cracked year by year. Finally they paved over our names written in the cement.
The car door bridge was ripped up when the Leisure View apartments were sold. They were demolished, of course, and the no good bums that lived there had to find somewhere else to live. Most of them hung around on Main, wearing dirty clothes and asking for change or cigarettes.
I saw Murphy often. He’d sit on the corner, near the funeral home, just messing around with his bass guitar. Every once and a while, he’d come and ask me if I wanted to jam with him. We’d gather at a warehouse on the outside of town, plug in and play late until the evening. And yes, I finally grew up. There was never really a choice. We’re like children that want to stay at the swimming pool and play, but time forces us to leave it anyway.
None of my books were being published. None of my music gathered much notice. So I resigned to a mill just outside of town to keep myself fed and pay my brother’s phone bills before I went to school. There never was really a choice for this either. I made socks in the morning and spent the afternoons by the typewriter. I still dreamt that one day someone would care, but in this I believe I overestimated the human race.
For a while I kept visiting Herman. His health got increasingly worse and his mind finally demanded a divorce. When they shipped him off, they threw away all his pictures, posters, flyers; they threw away the only life that he’d ever enjoyed. But at the end, he’d even forgotten how to enjoy that one.
He taught me guitar for a while, and he continued teaching Elizabeth until she moved. She did reasonably well in the big, uncaring world. She performed at various clubs and party houses around our little town. Even at the Greenhouse – a gathering place for hunters and fisherman. People usually just go to get drunk. She never forgot how to play Athalie so sweetly. When we get together – we always talk about the odd times we spent with Herman. She really turned into a woman far too beautiful and cultivated for a gutter mouthed misanthrope like me. Late in her life she finally, by a series of surgeries, regained her vision.
Nobody believed us, of course, and several publishers turned down my story. Not that I blamed them, of course, but it really seemed to undermine what we were trying to do. And I remember it now as much as I knew it then. There’s still some mystery left in the world, strange things under rocks, and doors no human yet has entered.
Some said it was too unrealistic, which it is, some said it was too fantastical to be written as reality. They asked “how did the moth get in the snow globe?” or “How did the coffee tin link to a parallel universe?” I always tell them the same thing. I always tell them the same, irrefutable truth: I have no idea. It doesn’t even matter.
Frodo, when he got the ring, he knew what it was because it glowed in the fire. Did he ever stop to wonder what made it glow? No, because the more you know about something, the less mystery there is to be found in it.
I remember when I first started looking at the stars with my telescope. I thought that the fireflies in the daytime slept in the clouds at night. Then I learned what they really were and all the mystique disappeared. They weren’t as magical as they were to me before I knew.
After that last day at Herman’s, when everything returned to normal, Elizabeth and I snuck out while Herman fed his hummingbird and went to the sandbox. The door was gone, of course. In its place there was just a small dustpan. We both knew what it meant.
I never went to Mike’s Waffle House awake again, and Satan never gave me a call, but I refuse to write all of this off as paranoia and hallucinations. I went to Mike’s often in my dreams. He always greeted me in a familiar manner.
Around age twenty five, I decided that I was wasting my life to the fullest. I’d met a girl by then – a real kind of devil woman. The intelligent type with a wicked sense of humor. She was studying at a local college to be a pathologist, and she knew of my interest in psychology; she finally pushed me into trying to enroll.
I finally enrolled and majored in psychology, with astronomy as my minor. As of now I’m pursuing my doctorate.
Through all of that, I remained on medicine for nerve related disorders. I always took sleeping pills. And I never really thought of any of them as anything other than what Herman saw them as – Digitalis. Digitalis to him was what everyone needed to live. It was the fish for the fisherman, the music for the composer; it was whatever you needed to keep you going. His Digitalis was not only in those tiny plastic bottles. His Digitalis covered his floor in piles, some all the way up to the ceiling. His Digitalis hung on the walls.
Sometimes it seems that whoever I was that summer has been buried by a fancy suit and a degree. That’s not true at all. I’m still the same person, the same pie; now there’s just a bit of icing on top. And my suit really isn’t that fancy. In fact, I stole it.
Looking over what I’ve written, I realize that more often than not I just wanted people to think that I was clever. Or that there was something about me that would make them want me to stick around. Something about me that would make them not abandon me like my father did. That’s why I tried to make them laugh, and that’s why I’ve tried to make you laugh. Lots of areas in this story are silly. That much is true. But in the end, I realized, of all the things I could be – I never really figured out how to be myself.
In the end, Jennifer and I got married and adopted two kids. A boy and a girl. Come on, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
As the years went by, I found myself watching the trees every day. On my front porch, or on the deck round back, just to look at them. I watched the leaves fall off each autumn, only to grow again in spring. I watched the woods behind where I used to live be cleared off for a new textile factory. I saw the textile factory go out of business and collapse into rags and ruin. People were born and people died, and that about sums it up. Life just teaches us how to die in style. Some of us just suffer a learning curve.
That same mechanical instinct is there. The monogamy of routine finally settled back in. Now I just don’t have time to sit around. I wake up each morning at the same time and make my breakfast for my wife. There’s always a book – she’s an avid reader, and even reads my books – on the tray. She joins me on the patio and we talk, or read, before she goes to work. I feed our kids and then crawl back to the bedroom where I write my stories and essays. Nobody much cares for them, and I see why. Late at night when my wife is asleep, my adopted son, Uriel Lumière, sometimes sneaks from his room to join me by the typewriter. And every night I tell him that he doesn’t have to be funny or clever, that I’m not going anywhere. Like it or not, I told him, I’ll be here for life. In fact, I’d done something for him that once some very kind people did for me. I got him out of a god forsaken orphanage so he wouldn’t have to grow up looking at the world like I did.
Thousands of people live their lives in lowercase. They’re never really noticed or adored by many people. This town is full of them. They sit on their front porches doing crossword puzzles, watching daytime television and making meatloaf for supper. They gossip about who’s sleeping with who, who wishes they were sleeping with someone sleeping with someone else, or the Soap Operas that come on television. They pick up pecans and weed their gardens every day.
They wake up in the morning and get their kids ready for school and clean the house while they’re away. At lunchtime they sat the tables and the forks and spoons; they never make the news when they feed their children or make somebody laugh. The cameras never come to watch them tend their garden or feed the hummingbirds or plant a flower. And their death might not make the world mourn, but when they’re gone Mother Earth is a little less bright. It might not matter much to people or to anything in the cosmic sense of things – but it matters here.
Sol rises every morning regardless of what we say or do. And we’re hurtling through space, laughing and screaming, like children on a carousel. And isn’t the music pretty while it lasts?
We never heard from anyone on the other side again. The other side, ha, it sounds absurd, I know. Elijah, Anne, Aaron, or Isaac – we never found out how their story ended. In the end, I guess, Herman left it up to them. Hopefully, whatever has us on the strings will let us do our own dance. Hopefully we can get off Digitalis and its myriad of forms. My wife takes sleeping pills. Our young daughter tends her garden and that’s her Digitalis. Our young boy plays his plastic guitar, and that’s his. Writing this has kept me going too. For what? I’m not really sure. C’est la vie.
It kept Herman going. It kept him going long enough to feed his hummingbird and make us sandwiches and tell us all his stories. It never really bothered me that they had been fabricated. It never once bothered me that all of his posters and papers and flyers were forged. It showed me a whole new side of the man.
The fact that Herman died, when I was thirty three, should be of little surprise. I played Wheels, by Chet Atkins, at his funeral. There were few people there. Those who came gave off the kind of impression that immediately lets you know they’re only there because of obligation. At the time of Herman’s death, my wife and I were in Rome. Elizabeth sent me the telegraph from home, and from Rome we made our way back to our small, warm, gossip riddled town. Everybody knew where we had went, what we ate while we were there, and more than a few people claimed to know the exact moment we consummated the marriage. How this happened, I don’t know. Of course I did put it on my website, along with video and photographs, for your listening and viewing pleasure. I can’t do that much more than I can write. That should give you an inkling as to the duration and degree of success I managed with it.
We returned to America and then to South Carolina. We had a big dinner at my grandmother’s house the Sunday after we got there. My brother heard I was coming, and he showed up with a chess board ready. He already had my first move set up. Pawn to king four, every time. I even let him win a few times …
My brother became one of the biggest demons the chess world had ever seen, and won several master’s tournaments. Everyone he played, as I said, let him win.
After dinner, we went to where the Leisure View apartments had been. The swing sets lilted with the gentle wind with no one there to swing. The rusted chains squeaked as the wind whipped by them. I stood there in front of where his apartment used to be for a while. My wife was waiting in the car, so I didn’t stay long. Just long enough to plant a flower, just a flower, where his home had been. And that was that. Herman died. He didn’t become a great man, nor did he become the widely beloved man he was in his fantasies. He just did what most people do: he lived, with marginal success, and died. There was no heart wrenching speech at his funeral. No overt sentimentality; Elizabeth and I didn’t shed a tear.
Not because we weren’t sad. Of course we were. But I didn’t feel sad for him. His hands had stopped shaking completely and he could finally get some rest. He looked so calm laying there. Poor fool, his own funeral – and he slept all the way through it.
The only thing I could think to lay inside his coffin was my often used Jazz III guitar pick. I stood there for a moment, awkwardly in my awkward suit, then placed it in his picking hand. At that moment, the image of an angel playing bluegrass with a glass of orange juice beside him crept up inside my head. I laughed a bit to myself, and walked away. That was the last time I saw him, and haven’t really had much to say since all those years ago.
The world was different then. I was different then. I figured I could lay around forever without time sneaking up on me.
I spent some time in college in philosophy. I wrote papers on epistemology, ontology, and existentialism. But I had only one conclusion: I concluded that I’d never come to a conclusion and if I did it probably wouldn’t be worth all the time I’d spent looking for it. But I won’t bore you with this. You’ve got television to watch, malls to go to, fast food restaurants to eat at, and music to listen to. And so do I.
From here we go a million routes to the same destination. Hopefully we’ll find our way through the maze as they must have, hopefully we’ll find our way to Ra’s Patio, and hopefully there will be sunshine there.
And that’s all I can say. I would say more, but it’s two o’clock. Time to take my medicine.


Published by

Brandon K. Nobles

Brandon is an author, poet and head writer for Sir Swag on YouTube. With 630k subscribers. Since February 2021 he has written for the most important and popular series, News Without the Bulls%!t and the least popular work on the channel, History Abridged. Brandon joined the channel in late January, since then his work has been featured every month in News and History. His novels and works of fiction have also been well received, and he continues to be a proficient and professional chess player. In his spare time he like to catch up on work.

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